• Jon Winkler / Nashoba Valley Voice

    Beth Elwell, left, with Swallow Union Elementary School student Karoline McKenzie at the school's Intergenerational Pen Pal Program tea time.

  • Jon Winkler / Nashoba Valley Voice

    Senior citizens applauding the third grade class of Swallow Union Elementary School.

  • Jon Winkler / Nashoba Valley Voice

    Nancy Olson speaking with Swallow Union Elementary School student Daniel Ware about the letters they've written each other.

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DUNSTABLE – Thirty years ago, the 3rd-grade class at the Swallow Union Elementary sent some letters to a group of local senior citizens just to see who they were and how they were doing.

They eventually sat down for a cup of tea and some snacks, meeting face-to-face for the first time and yet knowing each other like they were neighbors. Even when letters are written on keyboards and sent through screens today, putting pen to paper somehow still has a greater personal impact.

About 50 senior citizens filled the lower auditorium of Swallow Union again to meet this year’s third grade students they had been writing to for the last several months. This is the 30th year Swallow Union has been organizing not only the meet-up but the Intergenerational Pen Pal Program between the students and the seniors.

Nancy Keegan, one of the three third grade teachers who currently run the program, said that it started back in the spring of 1989. Seniors are contacted about the programs through phone calls from parents and school staff.

Even grandparents of students participate in the writing, though they aren’t matched with their own grandchildren.

Keegan explained that the students write three to four letters to the seniors, who then write back to the students and have their letters delivered to the kids at school. For the last letter of the program the children write an acrostic poem, using the first letters of the phrase “my pen pal” to spell out phrases special to their elderly pen pals.

“The kids love getting mail at school, they’re not used to that,” Keegan said. “It’s a nice opportunity for our youth to appreciate writing friendly letters to people they don’t know about themselves. They learn how to organize a theme and purpose for each letter and learn about what school and family life was like for our seniors. They learn how to communicate with others and connect to seniors when they meet them in person.”

There were certainly smiles peppered through the crowd between snacks and shared stories of the season. Student Andy Glanville said he enjoyed chatting with pen pal David Woods about boating: ranging from the sailing experience Woods had or Glanville’s passion for kayaking, not to mention the fact that Glanville’s grandparents build catamarans.

“I met a new person through this and learned a lot about him and the school,” Woods said. “I come from the next town over but my dad was actually born in Dunstable. It feels great to meet Andy.”

“It’s exciting,” Glanville said. “He’s nice and it’s nice to meet new people.”

There are of course veterans of the program. Nancy Rivet has been writing letters to Swallow Union students for 12 years and has grandchildren who’ve also participated in the program when they were students. Her pen pal, student Boyang Lee, chatted with her about school and dogs, specifically Lee’s German Shepherd and Rivet’s two Boxers she referred to as her “grand puppies.” Rivet said she enjoyed chatting with such a “great personality” and saw what other kids get out of the program.

“They learned to write letters, seek out a stranger, grow a comfortable bond and gain maturity from it,” Rivet said.

Senior Nancy Olson chatted with her pen pal, Daniel Ware, about her two trips to Ireland and his love of the Kansas City Chiefs. The way the duo went back and forth in conversation about their respective lives, it’s easy to see the common ground the two shared.

“I think it’s an amazingly well-organized program to make that intergenerational bond,” Olson said.

Jon Winkler: jwinkler@ nashobavalleyvoice.com