pen pals 2 ladies smiling

Bridging the Gap: Intergenerational Pen Pals

Wesley Des Moines resident Hisa Leatherman first visited Seattle from her native Japan in 1958 as an exchange student attending a leadership conference as part of the Seattle-Kobe Sister City celebration. During the conference, a local girl asked Hisa if she’d consider being a pen pal to her 80-year-old grandmother. A twenty-year friendship was born.

“When I returned as an exchange teacher in nineteen seventy-two, my pen pal, who lived on Whidbey Island, wanted to meet,” recalls Hisa. “Her grandson flew his Cessna plane to Boeing Field to collect me. We remained pen pals, exchanging letters and gifts, for two more decades until her passing.”

Fast forward fifty years to 2022, and Hisa was still thinking about pen pals, this time with her daughter, Mika, who teaches first grade at Des Moines Elementary. The pandemic had disrupted a student-resident reading program. Then the school moved to a new building, and students could no longer walk to the Wesley campus to celebrate Halloween. So last October, Hisa and Mika launched the pen pal program between twenty students and twenty residents.

“The program has been heartwarming, watching the residents’ reactions when they receive the letters,” says Hisa. “I also know through my daughter that her students also really look forward to receiving their letters, with one boy asking her daily when his letter will arrive.”

Wesley Des Moines resident Vicki Long has always been a letter writer. She loves snail mail and new USPS stamps. She collects and then uses them to send cards to family and friends.

“When we receive a pile of mail each day containing mostly advertisements and bills,” she says, “the mail we always open first are the handwritten envelopes. Naturally, I was thrilled to have a pen pal.”

During the first physical meeting of students and their resident pen pals in April, Vicki was on a cross-country road trip this spring to collect her daughter’s plants and cat in Vermont. However, she kept Karson, her first-grade pen pal, at the top of her mind during her sojourn.

“I collected postcards everywhere I went, including Mount Rushmore, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Emily Dickenson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts,” she says. “I’ve created a pile of all these postcards to send to Karson with my May letter.”

A former architectural consultant, Vicki was most excited to visit “Falling Water,” Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece in Pennsylvania. She purchased a book about the iconic landmark, which she planned to share with Karson when they met for the first time this May.

“I know Karson loves math and math puzzles,” she says. “I think he’ll be quite interested in the design, especially the cantilevered section over the creek of Falling Water.”

Interest in math is one of many tidbits Vicki knows about her pen pal, like his love of pizza, preferably topped with pepperoni, ham, sausage, bacon, and “lots of other meat.” His favorite color: purple. Fairy tale: The 3 Little Pigs.

“I found some dinosaur stickers recently, so I applied them to my most recent letter and asked Karson to name his favorite dinosaur,” Vicki said. “He likes the brontosaurus. My favorite is the stegosaurus because my daughter always loved them.”

As the daughter of a teacher, Vicki says composing letters provides an excellent opportunity for students to practice their writing skills. She also likes that students develop the habit of writing letters, a practice, like penmanship, that has largely disappeared in the world of text messages and emails. She thinks staying in touch with younger generations is also important.

Wesley Des Moines has several intergenerational programs. High schoolers regularly perform on campus. Costumed grade schoolers parade past and received candy from residents at Halloween. Wesley residents also volunteer at the inaugural Bezos Academy, a free preschool in Des Moines.

“We formed a four-person committee to get the pen pal program started,” says Hisa. “One resident bought a traditional red mailbox with a white flag. I never have to remind residents it’s the fifteenth and their mail is due. They deposit their letters. When I see the flag up, my heart is lifted.”

Though June signaled the final correspondence before summer, Hisa says she and Mika will relaunch the program with a new set of 20first graders in September.

Come fall, the red mailbox flag will be raised, like the hand of a first-grader, waiting to ask if the mail has arrived.