Can a letter combat isolation, build empathy and improve literacy? Yes - when it’s part of an intergenerational project connecting grade school students and residents in assisted living.
This fall, 50 fifth-grade students from St. Joseph Academy in Milwaukee, WI, began writing letters to their counterparts at Villa St. Francis in Manitowoc, WI, asking questions about their lives and giving the residents the opportunity to give the children a glimpse into the stories of another generation.
The project is a collaboration between Sr. Michelle Konieczny, director of mission integration at St. Joseph Academy, and Carolyn Grunfelder, who operates in the same position at Villa St. Francis. “The idea really stemmed from the cards and posters the children sent for Grandparent's Day,” said Sr. Michelle. After seeing how much the Villa residents enjoyed connecting with the children, they wanted to do more.
Sr. Michelle brought the idea of a pen pal program to Teresa Reilly, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Joseph, who got to work with her students and students in the other fifth-grade classroom. “We thought this would be a great way to live out our mission statement here at SJA, showing compassion and respect for human dignity,” Reilly said. “It also allows our students to build relationships with the older generations in our community and to learn from each other as well.”
Meanwhile, Grunfelder recruited residents of Villa to participate. “Residents are writing letters back to the students with the help of family or our life enrichment staff,” said Grunfelder. “We received 50 pen pals!! This project is helping build spirituality in the 5th grade class at St. Joseph Academy. We hope to have these relationships continue for an extended period of time.”
The children kicked off the project by writing their first letters, and they have already begun receiving responses from Villa residents. “Right now the students are just sharing things about themselves to the residents; getting to know each other at this point,” said Reilly.
Sr. Michelle added, “The children get so excited when they receive a letter from their pen pal. It was really a simple idea that just took off. We are planning other things to keep these relationships going.”