When Jeannie Oliver was in fourth grade, she wrote the name of her crush all over her tennis sneakers. Then she accidentally left the sneakers in a gymnasium. Somebody else picked them up and tried to return them to Jeannie’s crush.
“I said nothing! I couldn’t admit they were mine,” Oliver, now 96, recalls.
The story of her tennis shoes was just one of many Oliver and other residents at Westminster Manor shared with fourth-graders in Jessica Sthreshley’s class at Ballard Elementary School through a new partnership that began in January. Some of the letter writers were also members of the community who wanted to get involved with the program.
On Friday, students and pen pals met in person for the first time over a lunch at Westminster.
It was cool. She gave me a picture of her but I didn’t see her right away.
Melina Hernandez, 9, on meeting her pen pal for the first time
Oliver’s story about her crush was prompted by a story her 10-year-old pen pal Rosie Martin shared in one of her letters. On April Fool’s Day, Rosie gave a boy a bag of chips that was full of fake spiders.
Ellie Collandra, 72, and Nahzir Stamper, 9, shared lots of stories about basketball. They also talked about Collandra’s grandchildren.
Collandra said she was impressed to see Nahzir’s writing skills grow from January to May. Every other week, she eagerly awaited his next letter, knowing they were getting better and longer each time.
“His letters were so neat,” Collandra said. “It was so amazing to watch how much he has grown with his writing.”
And that was the whole point, Sthreshley said. Most of the writing the children do in class isn’t the creative type, it’s academic or essay writing. The collaboration with Westminster Manor brought a new dimension to the classroom.
“It’s a real-life skill learning how to write a letter to somebody,” she said.
The students went through all the stages of writing when crafting their letters, including peer editing and multiple drafts before polished versions were sent off. Officials are already looking at how to improve and maybe even expand the program next year.
“The residents are already asking me,” said Marina Anderson, the director of volunteers at Westminster. “They don’t think it’s weird at all.”