A new program at Hays High School aims to help make intergenerational personal connections.
The Senior Pen Pals Program pairs up students with senior citizens for hand-written correspondence. History teacher Luke Lundmark created the project with English teacher Diane Mason.
Lundmark said he was inspired in part by his son’s Boy Scout troop, which went caroling last year at Homestead Assisted Living Center, 2929 Sternberg. Afterward, the Scouts and residents talked with each other.
“I could just see this instant connection,” he said.
He brainstormed how those connections could be made through his job, and the director of Homestead suggested pen pals. In October, Lundmark drafted some guidelines, and with approval from principal Marty Straub, he sought Mason’s help in refining the idea.
They organized an informal organization meeting.
“I thought maybe we’d get five, maybe six” students, Lundmark said. “We got 30.”
Lundmark was able to match the students with seniors by canvassing local churches, senior care facilities and the Foster Grandparent program at Fort Hays State University. Most are local, but there are a few from outside Ellis County and even out of state, he said.
“It’s very organic, it’s kind of growing,” he said.
More participants will be welcome, too, he said.
“There’s not really a limit on it per se. The limit would be just people that want to participate and want to write letters,” he said. “It could be as many as 100 or it could be as few as five. I want there to be a connection between high school students and senior citizens.”
Those connections are important today for both the old and the young, Lundmark said.
“There are some senior citizens whose family don’t live here in town," he said. "There are some that just have no connections other than maybe people at church. Here’s a way they can have a connection.
“Also I feel the youth of today don’t have a connection with a lot of people. They might have 600 or 700 Facebook friends, but how many of them can call one of their friends and say, ‘Hey, let’s go see a movie,’ or talk to one on a deeper level of their issues at home, their likes, dislikes, maybe a place that they can have meaningful conversation?"
The project will also give students an idea of what it is like to receive personal mail — something few have experienced, Mason said.
“I don’t know about anyone else, but I get home and my mailbox is stuffed to the gills with catalogs and 8-by-10 glossy ads for new washing machines," she said. "Rarely anymore do I get a personal letter in the mail — maybe for my birthday.
“I don’t know if kids in this generation have even known the joy of that, getting something just for them in the mail that’s actually not a bill or an ad."
Three replies from seniors have already come in, Lundmark said, and the students were excited to get their letters.
“One letter was three pages, and when the student came to pick it up from me, she opened it up and she kind of looked at it, looked at me and goes ‘wow,’ ” he said.
Lundmark and Mason will screen letters — both those sent and received — to make sure they adhere to Hays High School standards. Specifically that means no foul language, sexual content or mentions of drugs or alcohol. Students will sign only their first name and last initial to help protect their privacy. One or two letters a month are encouraged, but the pen pals can write more often if they want.
Students and seniors can choose to write to each other over the summer, but the program will be conducted through the school during the school year. There might also be a gathering at the end of the semester for pen pals to meet.