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Jasper County Tribune

Pen pals for life

Baxter’s Write to Read bridges gen gap

BAXTER – Letter exchanging is not something typically done these days. People text, make phone calls, email and post and tweet as the preferred avenues of communication.

But for nine months, writing letters was the only way 20 students and 28 volunteers in Baxter, with generations between them, would be able to communicate.

And on May 3 at the Baxter Community School, the pen pals met in person for the first time.

“Before we met, we wouldn’t really know each other,” third-grader Peyton Steingrabe said. “Now, we know each other a lot.”

For nearly an entire school year, Baxter third graders have been growing their writing and grammar skills in a unique way thanks to a pen pal initiative offered by Jasper County Retired Senior Volunteer Program. Through the “Writing to Read” initiative, program participants were matched together based on common interests to exchange letters once a month.

Despite a smaller third grade class than previous years, the program volunteers said the letter writing is still doing well.

“It is a toss up between who is more excited about this when it is time to meet between the volunteers or the students,” Writing to Read organizer Donita Huegel said.

The main points of the program are developing reading and writing skills for third-grade students at Baxter Community School district, while connecting people across generations, according to Huegel.

The adult program participants said they have noticed an improvement in the student’s writing in the few months of the program.

“From the time the program starts to the conclusion, their letter writing improves, their grammar improves,” volunteer Toni Peska said. “The way that they form sentences and ask questions pertinent to what you talked about before really, really develops.”

By exchanging letters throughout the school year, the students and volunteers learned much about each other, from indulging their common interests to hearing stories about each other’s families. One such story is from some family fun during Christmas.

“Me and my sisters also went out and had a snowball fight. They are both little,” Steingrabe said. “They made a giant snowball and threw it right behind me and it went in my coat, it did not feel good.”

The program offers people a chance to look into the lives of a total stranger and learn first hand about that person and the lessons they have learned. Peska’s pen pal Avery Wonders said this is what she likes about the program.

“I like it because you get the chance to interact with other people and see into their lives,” Wonders said.

The third graders said they not only picked up some essential learning, writing and grammar skills – but several life lessons.

“I kind of give her a little homework assignment to do something nice for somebody without being asked or that they don’t know about,” Peska said.

Steingrabe said she has learned an important lesson from her pen pal, Noralee Warrick. Steingrabe said she learned of a more sensitive way to talk about someone with a handicap, be it mental or physical.

“Instead of being handicapped with a disability, we say they have a different ability,” Warrick said.

A few pairs were not able to meet each other in person, but despite obstacles from sickness to extracurricular engagements, many of the volunteers made arrangement to finally meet their pen pal – proving the strength of friendship can come through in the most trying of circumstances.

Volunteers Sandra Bouck and Jane Jenkins had a pen pal named Kaitlyn Ware. She could not make it due to illness, but, ironically, they found a modern way to meet.

“We are sad (Kaitlyn) wasn’t here,” Bouck said. “So we FaceTimed her.”

Bouck said she plans to invite Kaitlyn to her house. She said she already has a day full of activities planned for their get-together, including swimming in her pool with some of the other kids who come by and use it.

Jenkins said she enjoyed seeing Kaityln’s growth from the beginning to the end of the program.

At the end of the meet-and-greet, the pen pals exchanged contact information so they could continue to write letters over the summer.

More memories stand to be made from two groups of people generations apart, who were brought together by a simple letter.

“We have had pen pals that will continue writing throughout the summer and the following year and as a fourth grader they are writing to their same pen pal so that’s neat,” Huegel said.

Editor’s note: Staff Writer Anthony Victor Reyes contributed to this report.

Contact Samuel Nusbaum at 641-792-3121 ext. 6533 or at

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