HARRISONBURG — When the Skyline Middle School students filed inside the Park Gables building on the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community campus Thursday, each had a card with a few letters printed on it.
The students were searching for their pen pal, a VMRC resident who they’ve exchanged letters with since February. The retirement community residents were standing in the upstairs dining room also holding up cards with the corresponding letters that together form a word with their pen pal’s.
After months of writing back and forth, the students and VMRC residents have looked forward to the day they’d finally meet their pen pal in person.
“They are excited to put a face to the stories,” said Terri Martin, an English as a Second Language instructor at Skyline Middle School.
The 13 students are in Martin’s Bridging English class, an ESL course for seventh- and eighth-graders at Skyline Middle who come from immigrant and refugee families.
The students come from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Uganda, Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The participating VMRC residents are members of a book club that read Sonia Nazario’s “Enrique’s Journey,” the real life story of a Honduran boy who travels to the U.S. to reunite with his mother.
The partnership was forged so that the ESL students could practice their English reading and writing skills in an authentic way, while the VMRC residents could learn more about Harrisonburg’s diverse populations.
“It’s always helpful to learn how other people are living, what their world is like,” said VMRC resident Don Albright.
They exchanged six letters to each other, sharing their personal interests and life experiences.
“They talked about their home country, their holidays and in the last one they talked about how they came and why they came so, that was a huge step,” Martin said. “That was very powerful for the people here [at VMRC].”
Once the pen pals were revealed, they ate lunch together and talked about their letters, which added a new component for the English-learners. They also worked together to write a letter to Harrisonburg City Council about the program and the friendships they made.
“They have to talk on their own in English to another adult who they don’t know, which is very good for their oral language development,” Martin said.
Albright met his pen pal, Angel Gonzalez, a 13-year-old from Aibonito, Puerto Rico.
“[His town] was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Maria,” he said. “His house was damaged and that’s why they left.”
Angel has lived in Harrisonburg for about a year. He said he has enjoyed writing the letters and finding connections to Albright.
“He’s been to Puerto Rico and he learned Spanish,” Angel said. “We talk a lot in the letters.”
Moses Kasangaki, a 15-year-old from Uganda, has lived in Harrisonburg for about six months. The pen pal project, he said, has helped him improve “writing sentences, reading and how to start a paragraph.”
Zuleira Andujar, a 14-year-old from Puerto Rico, also agreed that having a pen pal has helped her better understand the language and culture.
Her pen pal, Mary Jean Cross, 78, felt that it was an enriching experience.
“I was really looking forward to meeting,” Cross said. “It’s been a really good experience for me and I hope that maybe next year we’ll do it again.”
After lunch, the students toured around VMRC before heading back to school.
“Tomorrow I’ll be interested in what they say because they’re just taking this all in,” Martin said. “I think they’re going to be very excited, you can tell. [VMRC] went through all this trouble for us. It’s going to mean a lot to them.”