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Long Island

To the letter: Pen pal programs connect Long Islanders during pandemic

World War II veteran Frank Sidoti meets the

World War II veteran Frank Sidoti meets the Long Island Grizzlies baseball team members who have become his pen pals. After exchanging letters, they met for the first time in August in Patchogue. Credit: Corey Sipkin

You could call it a pen-demic — the power of the handwritten letters that are drawing together a 95-year-old World War II veteran and members of a 9-and-under travel baseball team, among other correspondents.

During the spring COVID-19 "pause," educators at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook started an online program for students to learn how to write in Spencerian script, the flowing, ornate writing that was taught in the 19th century Nassakeag Schoolhouse displayed at the museum. Such handwriting has faded from use as keyboards and thumb typing have bumped out ink pens scratching on paper.

At the same time, veterans who participated in Adult Day Health Care programs at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook weren't able to attend in person at either the home or the museum, which has hosted events with the veterans home since 2011. The pen pal program was born as a way to maintain social contact for the veterans and to reduce screen time for youths by having them practice their penmanship. (Another pen pal program has sprung up in Freeport — see related story.)

"It fell into place very quickly. We didn't want the veterans to lose social engagement," said Karen Romanelli, the museum's communications director.

More than 50 letters have been sent through the pen pal program, which is continuing, and about 16 participants have consistently written back and forth, Romanelli said.

Said Beth Schaeffler, coordinator of the pen pal program at the veterans home, "These letters have been a way for some of our folks to remain active and engaged in the community and form intergenerational relationships that have proven priceless. I think it's awesome that a student on summer vacation is taking time out of their lazy days to write to a senior veteran."

About 25 vets have participated, said Schaeffler, adding, "I believe the letter writing will continue. Those that have made connections have made true intergenerational friendships — that is definitely of value to both young and old. It is really something special!"

'One after another'

Frank Sidoti, 95, who lives in Patchogue after 55 years in Brentwood, enjoys writing and receiving letters. He retired from Harris Corp. in 1986 and had served in the Coast Guard from 1943 to 1946 on an 83-foot Submarine Chaser and an LST, which carried tanks. Unable to attend day programs at the veterans' home, Sidoti undertook answering letters from boys on the 9U Grizzlies baseball team from Miller Place.

Coach Bill MacDonald, 45, of Miller Place, wanted to get the team, now fourth-graders, involved when he learned about the pen pal program.

"We lose sight of the fact that we're dealing with kids," he said. "We want to get well-rounded individuals and ballplayers by the time they get to the next level in middle school."

Eleven boys wrote letters, telling about themselves and their families. Sidoti replied to each one, describing his life and experiences in the Coast Guard during World War II, in which he served in the Pacific Theater and was part of the support team for Marines who were preparing to invade Japan. After the war, he explained, "I worked all my life in an office, and all I did was write and write."

After receiving their letters, "I got so interested, I did one after the other," Sidoti said.

"I loved every letter, and I tried not to write the same thing. I hope I answered all of your questions," he told the boys when they visited him outside his Patchogue home in August, accompanied by a crowd of parents and siblings. "I will never forget this day."

When the team visited Sidoti told them about seeing Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio play at Yankee Stadium, paying 5 cents for a hot dog and 40 cents for a subway ride to the stadium. "It was practically nothing. To get to a ballgame today, your father and mother have to go to the bank," Sidoti joked to the team. The posters the boys brought on their visit now decorate Sidoti's living room.

The kids said they loved hearing his experiences. Noah Lopez, 9, of Miller Place, appreciated learning about "how life was back then" and exchanging letters. "He explained his time in the war and it was very interesting, he was in the Coast Guard," Noah said. "We talked about baseball and what team he liked — the Mets or the Yankees."

"It's great that he writes to all of them," said Noah's mom, Caryn Lopez. "It's good for them to know that. And it helps Noah with his writing when he writes the letters out."

Kyle Scully, 9, of Miller Place, liked meeting Frank after exchanging letters. "He was just really nice," Kyle said. "We said things we liked to do, talked about baseball and our families." While Kyle can read Frank's script letters, he can't yet write script, so he’ll be practicing as they continue exchanging letters. "I like that he was in the war a long time ago and that he also likes baseball," Kyle said.

Sidoti's grandchildren also have started to write him letters, said his daughter, Helen Sidoti of Bellport. "I told them Grandpa is walking history, he's living history," she said. "And he was a good influence on my son growing up, he gave such simple, good advice."

Fancy script

The museum chose to teach Spencerian script, the most common script taught in 1877, the year the Nassakeag Schoolhouse in South Setauket was built. Moved to the grounds in 1956, the schoolhouse is one of five historic structures at the museum.

"Writing was one of the main things students do when they visit the schoolhouse on-site," said Lisa Unander, the museum’s director of education. "They notice there's no electric lights, and we talk about the teacher's role, students' role and the work they did. They notice what’s changed but also the things that have stayed the same — students were learning and writing the same as they do now."

"We take more the art approach, as a design and pattern — start your pen here, for example. And we talk about logos that are in that style; Ford and Coca-Cola are in the font of Spencerian script," Unander said.

The letters, which first pass through a printer so no actual paper is exchanging hands, take time to reach their destination — just as they would have in the days when the mail was moved by horse-drawn carriages.

"The fact that it's not instant, I think that's valuable," Unander said. "It helps them understand the process, and that idea they're creating a real communication because they've given more thought to what they put into it."

The letters for veterans are delivered via email to Schaeffler, the therapeutic recreation specialist who coordinates their distribution. She prints the letters, which are then delivered when staff takes them their lunches. Lunch deliveries give staff a chance to check in with their former day-program attendees.

Schaeffler has also distributed letters to vets from a graduate student at Stony Brook University and from high school students across the country — Florida, Chicago, New Orleans and Texas — courtesy of Anastasiya Denisenko, 16, a senior at James Madison High School in Brooklyn who coordinated pen pals using her Instagram account @Grammys_Pals.

Denisenko has missed visiting her grandparents in Ukraine and wanted to help connect young people with older adults who also couldn't spend time with their grandchildren because of travel bans and visiting restrictions. She found the veterans pen pal program online, contacted Schaeffler about participating then organized letters from high schoolers and emailed them to Schaeffler for distribution.

"I write to my own grandparents often. I’m passionate about it," she said. "I even Skype them every day. I wanted to make an impact with seniors in my community. During the hard times I saw that senior citizens needed more help."

With a lot of hours to fill during the coronavirus lockdown, 14-year-old Johnny Cuomo also connected with Sidoti in the spring. His mother, Kristin Cuomo, a senior educator at the museum, asked him if he wanted to participate. Johnny, a freshman at Mount Sinai High School, has exchanged letters with Sidoti since April — 11 letters so far.

"Me and Frank made a really good connection," Johnny said. "I tell him about online school, and we talk about our injuries," he said with a laugh, describing how he shared with Frank that he cut his finger while whittling and chipped a tooth while skateboarding.

The letters can stretch to up to six pages, depending on how many questions are posed by the writers. "I like learning about his past, and I think he likes to hear my stories," Johnny said. "I sent him a picture of me playing my instrument, a violin, and he liked that. It's been a lot of fun and I'm glad he likes it, too. It's not a drag."

The program has eased veterans' social isolation and will continue as long as there are correspondents.

"Frank enjoys making people feel good," Schaeffler said. "He thrives on it [the letter writing] and he talks with people over the phone. I love that intergenerational connection."

Reaching out from Freeport ... to Freeport

Pen pals are dear to Maryellen Cantanno's heart. A librarian at Freeport Memorial Library, she still corresponds with Denise Wisken Bailey, the English pen pal she started writing to when she was 12 and earning a Girl Scout pen pal badge.

"She and I are born 10 days apart, the same year, married one month apart, and still have our fragile parents alive. We share our struggles as well as our accomplishments in our family life as well as our careers," Cantanno said.

They've visited one another, have met each other's families and keep mailing letters after 48 years, with an occasional email in the mix. Cantanno, who grew up in Freeport, said her college graduation present in 1982 was a visit to her English friend. She spent four days touring London, then took the train from Kings Cross Station to Humberside, in northeastern England, where Denise's father was a vicar. She brought along her Girl Scout vest to show off the pen pal badge. During the homily at the Sunday service, Denise's father invited everyone "to meet the American girl" at an afternoon reception. "They gave me a key-to-the-city party," she said with a laugh.

Inspired by her own experience, Cantanno has created pen pal programs including this year's Freeport Across America, a writing journey to libraries in eight other places named Freeport — in Maine, Illinois, Florida, the Bahamas, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio and Michigan.

The hand of friendship has also been extended with invitations to library patrons in those localities to join virtual programs at Freeport here on Long Island. "I've had two people reach out to me, and one woman wants to join our Zumba class," Cantanno said. She hopes other farflung Freeporters might join in senior book group discussions with authors or in teen programs.

Getting started

To get local pen pals started, stations with note cards and envelopes have been scattered around the library for patrons to use to write letters, which the staff mails.

"Tell them something about yourself, your future plans, and our great community," instructions read. "Include your return address and hopefully this will be the beginning of a new, beautiful pen-pal friendship. In the fall, we will plan to get together with some of these other Freeport faces via a virtual library program."

So far, the library has gotten a few replies, although correspondence is expected to pick up this fall as more libraries fully reopen, including the Bahamas library, which officially reopens Sept. 21, Cantanno said.

Margaret Hunt, 64, of Freeport, who wrote to all eight of the other Freeport libraries, received a reply from the director at the Freeport District Library in Michigan. "She told me their Freeport is a rural community with 500 residents, although the library serves 5,000 people," Hunt said. "It was a very nice handwritten letter."

The director there, Tammy Borden, said Michigan has been slower to reopen its libraries, and only eight people are allowed in her branch at a time. Most of its programs are take-home, she said, and patrons can grab items from two carts outside stocked with free used puzzles and books.

"We're struggling getting people to come back," Borden said. "It's a great idea, but we'll try it again when we have our normal programming."

Local Freeport resident Anja Moreno-Smith helped her daughters, Audrey, 5, and Amelie, 8, draft notes to send to the Freeport Branch Library in Texas and the Sir Charles Hayward Library in Freeport, the Bahamas.

"They did a drawing of themselves with rainbows saying 'Hello from Freeport,' " Moreno-Smith said.

Amelie enjoys reading the graphic novels "Ms. Marvel" and "Dog Man" and has made her own graphic novels. With the note she sent to the Bahamas, she said, "I'm trying to collect maps." She also received a summer reading program packet from the Freeport, Michigan, library along with a letter thanking her for writing.

'A fabulous idea'

Local Freeport resident Marge Geiger, who spends part of the winter in Florida, hopes to visit the Freeport Library in Florida, on her way south. It's located in Florida's Panhandle, about two hours east of Tallahassee.

"I love the idea of it all," Geiger said. "I write to people in Ireland and England because they're my cousins. I thought reaching out to other Freeports was a fabulous idea."

Caitlin Cerise, library systems manager for Walton County, Florida, which has four libraries including the Freeport branch that Geiger wants to visit, said their rural area is offering curbside pickup but has no programming or meetings at the Freeport branch now; virtual programs are few because of limited internet access in rural areas.

Cantanno said the Freeport, Long Island, pen pal program will continue through the winter.

In the spring she hopes to get those participating to calculate how many steps it would take to walk to the other Freeport libraries. "We'll maybe hand out pedometers in the spring and use it to get some exercise going," she said.

Anyone wanting to join the pen pal program can get details and other library addresses at freeportlibrary.info, Cantanno said, or they can stop by the library, at 144 W. Merrick Rd. in Freeport.

— Kay Blough

Join the museum program

Anyone interested in joining the Long Island Museum program can contact Lisa Unander, director of education, at LUnander@longislandmuseum.org.

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