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June 17, 2009 > You've Got Mail!

You've Got Mail!

By Ritu Jha
Photos By William Mancebo

Snail mail might become a thing of the past for many of us in this technology-driven life, but not for 30 seniors and 62 students who have been pen pals for the past five months.

"It was all a new horizon for me," said Sue Chou, 73, clad in a black dress at the Senior Pen Pal celebration at the Newark Community Center. Chou said she has no grandchildren and sharing letters with children is a way for her to connect with their generation. "I feel they are my kids," said Chou.

Chou said she feels proud that these children love their parents and respect their teachers. Her pen pal Noell Davalos, age 11, said it is an interesting experience. He added that writing letters help him with his writing skills. "It would help me in writing letters to others," said Davalos.

Katie Cespedes, 13, said she wrote to Chou about her education, school and soccer. Chou, who also loves to swim, said her pen pals were surprised to know that seniors can swim, play sports and have an interest in movies.

City of Fremont Human Services and the Tri-City Elder Coalition organize Senior Pen Pal celebrations. In Newark, pen pal participants are seniors and sixth graders from Graham Elementary School - who for the first time were meeting their pen pals.

"It is about bringing generations together," said Sugi Shiva, Pen Pal project manager. Shiva said the project started as a pilot study in 2007 by the Pathways to Positive Aging and has been very successful.

This was the second year that sixth graders from Graham Elementary School participated in the project. The seniors recruited for the project were from the Life Elder Care, City of Fremont case manager, South Bay Community Church, Tzu-Chi Foundation and various residential homes in the Tri-Cities area.

This year the pen pal program started in January and has been funded by the Newark based Cargill Salt Company. Shiva said the program helps children share their culture with seniors and for seniors it's about mingling with the young students.

At the celebration, the seniors, children and organizers shared their thoughts and feelings about the letter exchange and were given certificates by the Newark Vice Mayor Al Nagy.

Another senior Sultana Riaz, a Fremont resident seated beside her pen pal at the function, said she learned about the program through Fremont Senior Center and has been exchanging letters for the past four months. Her pen pal, 11-year old Angela Garcia said, "I feel happy and excited to meet her." She said she feels happy when she reads letter written by her new friend.

"Kids are shy but once they start writing they have lots of questions," said Gayle Howell, a senior pen pal from Fremont. Howell, 66, a retired teacher, said children's questions pleasantly surprise her and that she loves to share their dreams and families.

Howell said although she misses her grandchildren, "My pen pal friends have filled a need for me." She may be getting older each year but according to Howell, this program has kept her young at heart. "I still feel like I am 40."

Asha Chandra, Program Manager at City of Fremont Human Services Department, said the goal is to have an intergenerational experience between the seniors and children in the community. "It improves the quality of life of seniors in the Tri-City area," said Chandra.

She said the participants are local seniors who come from diverse communities. "We identify each senior and learn about their life and wisdom through letters and classroom visits. The motive of the whole program is to initiate writing letters, since hardly anyone writes letters these days," added Chandra.

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