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Lifelong Friendship Forged by Letters: A PencilPALS Story

Sunday, November 13 2011 @ 06:09 PM EST


In this age of emailing, texting, and social networking, PencilPALS volunteers are working the front lines to prevent letter writing from becoming a lost art. When students write letters, not only do they develop their sense of creativity and individuality, but also they develop a bond with their PencilPAL. Their letters become tangible expressions of that bond, helping children feel connected and valued. The children treasure their PencilPALS letters, reading them repeatedly, sometimes even until the paper wears thin.

So when volunteer Michelle Bodnar first signed up to become a PencilPAL and told me about her own pen pals experiences as a 6th grader, I asked her if she’d be willing to share her story. It’s a poignant reminder of the power of the written word. The Florida PencilPALS program is honored to host both Michelle and her childhood pen pal from Holland, Lenie Van Bokkel, as volunteer PencilPALS this year! Many thanks to both of you for sharing your story and for inspiring Florida’s young charges to practice and polish the craft of letter writing.

Michelle and Lenie by Michelle Bodnar

When I was in 6th grade, my teacher arranged for our class to be involved in a pen pal program with high school students in Holland. I suppose the project was so that these students could improve their English, and we could improve our letter writing skills. After a couple of months, my pen pal no longer wanted to continue writing, and my friend no longer wanted to write to her pen pal. I loved writing letters and so did my friend’s pen pal, Lenie, so in the second half of the school year, Lenie and I became pen pals. I was turning 12 and Lenie was turning 15 that summer.

Lenie was an amazing pen pal. She and I exchanged letters often, and I looked forward to receiving hers. We continued to write for the next six years, until I graduated from high school.

I stopped writing once I went to college, and before I knew it, years had gone by. By 1981 I had been teaching for a few years, and I started thinking a lot about Lenie. I sent a letter to the address I’d written to for all those years not really expecting her to still be living there. After all, it was nine years since we’d last written.

Well she was no longer living there, but her mother was, and she called Lenie to say there was a letter from America. Lenie immediately knew it was from me, and she went right over to her mother’s house. In my letter I told her I really wanted to come visit the following month and had actually made all of my plans. This was way before email and cell phones (instant communication), and without any real communication except a telegram from Lenie wishing me a safe trip, I left the U.S. and went to Holland. I arrived in the airport in Amsterdam, and after only a few minutes I heard her call out my name! I spent a wonderful week with her touring Holland and getting to know her family.

Life became busier and Leni went back to school while raising her son. I got married and became a mom myself. We really didn’t write much for many, many years. In one letter I gave Lenie my email address and told her that when she got a computer she could go online and we could write to each other that way. Years past and one evening I went online to check my email and there was one from her! We began to email frequently, and it was great that we didn’t have to wait weeks for a letter to arrive.

Two years ago Lenie and her husband, Wibbo, came to New York City so my husband, Joe, and I went to the city to spend the day with them. It was the first time in 28 years we’d seen each other, and to say it was difficult to say goodbye at the end of the day would be an understatement.

Lenie and I continue to email, but every few months we also Skype. In 1966 who could have ever imagined such a thing! And certainly my teacher could never have imagined that a class project would have such an impact and forge a friendship that’s continued for 45 years now.

The story doesn’t really end there. Recently I saw an article in the American Educator asking for PencilPALS volunteers to write to students in order to promote literacy. I quickly responded by telling Natalie Rogers this story of my own pen pal. She was very excited and asked if Lenie would be interested in becoming a PencilPAL as well. I gave her Lenie’s email address and Lenie said she’d love to do it, too. I now have two PencilPALS in Hollywood, Florida and Lenie has one in Orlando. I told Lenie we’d gone full circle, and she so aptly said, “No, our story goes on and on.” And happily, it does!

PencilPALS is a program of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation. It is designed to give children firsthand experience with letter writing. Volunteers are paired with elementary students and correspond by postal mail approximately once a month. Each pair is given a questionnaire to complete that generates ideas for first letters. After that, a correspondence evolves, with letters exchanged on topics ranging from favorite books and school happenings to long term aspirations. Teachers designate time during class for students to read and write their letters. The project may start and end with PencilPALS gatherings at the school to give volunteers an opportunity to meet their student PAL in person. In this age of emailing and texting, students have fewer and fewer opportunities to chronicle their experiences in thoughtful, polished prose. Reading, writing, and spelling skills improve when children write habitually in this way. In addition, students gain a sense of pride in their own writing and in their own stories by sharing them with an interested reader. PencilPALS volunteer applications are available at:





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Lifelong Friendship Forged by Letters: A PencilPALS Story | 3 comments | Create New Account
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Lifelong Friendship Forged by Letters: A PencilPALS Story
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, February 16 2012 @ 08:45 AM EST
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Lifelong Friendship Forged by Letters: A PencilPALS Story
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, February 16 2012 @ 08:45 AM EST
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