Pals across an age divide, forged through a paper bond

By on June 16, 2017
Ian and Pat Marshall pose with their PaperPal, nine-year-old Evan Dallaire. (Cole Wagner/Herald).

Nine-year-old Evan Dallaire, a student in the Grade 3/4 split class at Logan Lake Elementary, made a new friend this year — albeit one who is a couple years older than him.

Evan didn’t meet Pat Marshall in his class, nor did he make her acquaintance on the playground during recess. Instead, Evan got to know Pat Marshall and her husband Ian in a way that not many kids these days are familiar with — by becoming pen pals.

And on Thursday, Evan and his pen pal Pat got the chance to meet each other for the first time.

Dallaire’s class was part of the pilot version of the PaperPal project in Logan Lake. PaperPals aims to pair up kids with seniors living in the community, who then get to know one-another through a correspondence of handwritten letters.

The PaperPal program was developed by Domtar, one of the world’s largest paper companies, and brought into the community through a partnership between the Better at Home program and Logan Lake Literacy, explained Melanie Michalewicz, co-ordinator of the Better at Home program.

Since starting the Better at Home program in 2013, which aims to keep seniors living in the comforts of their own home by providing extra non-medical resources to the elderly, Michalewicz has been especially focused on expanding what she called “inter-generational connections.”

“I’ve always been looking for new and different ways to connect youth and seniors in the community, so I took the lead on this as it came by,” said Michalewicz.

More than 20 kids in the Grade 3/4 class at Logan Lake Elementary were matched up with seniors in January. The kids and seniors — who had never met each other — exchanged about three or four letters per month in the lead up to Thursday’s barbecue.

Evan Dallaire and Pat Marshall were just one of the many pairs meeting for the first time on June 15.

“It was great, it was really nice. He said, ‘I can’t wait to meet you at the barbecue!’ and then he said, ‘now I’m so nervous…’ and his hands were shaking,” said Marshall of the pen pals’ inaugural face-to-face.

But if Evan was nervous at first about being introduced to Pat, his shyness quickly faded throughout the afternoon. Midway through my conversation with Pat and Ian, Evan bounded up to the pair to make sure they were watching while he mounted an effort to blow a few big soapy bubbles.

His favourite part of the exercise in letter writing? The process of getting to know Pat, and the freedom to ask lots of questions, he told me.

“Just questions and answers!” he said with a smile, before taking off to play with the bubbles again.

“He’s funny — he talks like he writes. And his writing is very messy, but he drew pictures and the pictures were fantastic. There would be a man or a woman there — and all of a sudden, a space alien! And he talks about everything: technology, whatever. He wanted to know how old I was, if I had any kids, if I had any plans for the summer or for spring break,” explained Pat.

Should the program return, she’ll be a part of it again, said Marshall.

“If they give me a new child next year, that’ll be great. But I’ll still write to Evan next year,“ she said.

While the PaperPal’s website promotes the program as carrying psychological benefits for the seniors who participate, and better learning outcomes for kids who are engaged in the somewhat antiquated act of handwriting a letter.

“We’re interested in early learning literacy. Even letter writing is just going out of style. So it’s a skill that’s being lost that we want to bring back,” said Serena Hazel, outreach co-ordinator with Logan Lake Literacy. “We want them to write because that’s an essential skill. When you learn to write, you learn to read at the same time.”

And while the program carries a valuable education proponent for kids, Michalewicz said she sees the benefit the program brings to seniors as well.

“A lot of these folks, living in a rural area, can’t get to family or don’t get to see their own grandchildren. Doing a program like this, even for seniors who can get out of the home on a regular basis, they can do something like this and feel a part of the community, and feel a part of something more,” she said.

The program wasn’t without a few learning curves for the seniors however. Hazel noted that more than a couple seniors had to rewrite their letters after learning that kids  are no longer taught to decipher cursive writing.

And even when their printing was legible, some seniors told me their inquisitive pen pals were not shy about asking some odd questions.

“I got a charge out of the first letter he wrote to her,” said Jim Turner, recalling the first correspondence his wife Rita received from their pen pal. “He says: ‘Can you do a backflip?’”

“I’m 83-years-old, I don’t think so,” replied Rita with a laugh.

And if there was any doubt to the sincerity of the connections made through a mandated letter-writing program between kids and seniors, just ask Sylvia Perrault and husband Dean what they thought of PaperPals.

“Such a good idea. We drove home from Abbotsford just for this today,” she said.

And there was widespread support for the program to come back — with one caveat from the group of seniors, who seem to have become attached to their pen pals after only a few months.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we got the same kids?”

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