BRITT | Pen pal letter day is a red-letter day for fourth-graders at West Hancock Elementary.
The children get excited when their teacher opens the packet of letters from their senior citizen correspondents and distributes them.
Waiting for a reply from her pen pal is "like waiting for your birthday," said fourth-grader Carlie Johnson.
West Hancock is among the elementary schools participating in the RSVP of North Central Iowa Pen Pals program.
Each student in participating classes is matched with a pen pal from RSVP, which recruits adults 55 and older to use their skills, talents, and life experience to help meet community needs through volunteer service.
In the fall the RSVP pen pals and the students both complete a form that has questions about their interests and what their favorite subject in school is/was.
RSVP volunteers look at the student's forms and choose either one or two fourth-graders to be their pen pals.
Sometimes they make their choice based on factors such as "I'm a Vikings fan and he's a Vikings fan," or "I was a nurse and this little girl wants to be a nurse when she grows up," said Molly Anderegg, director of RSVP of North Central Iowa.
"It's so sweet how nervous they (the volunteers) are about their first letter," she said.
They will say things like, "What would they want to hear from an old lady like me?" she said.
Anderegg tells they they have a lifetime of knowledge and experience to share with the children.
The seniors and the children exchange six letters between November and April of each year.
They meet in person during a reveal party in May.
"Those parties are always a lot of fun," Anderegg said.
Some children are more comfortable expressing themselves in writing than speaking and vice versa, according to Anderegg.
Every year the volunteers are surprised to find the youngsters who wrote them short letters "are talking their ear off," while students who have been writing long letters don't have much to say in person, she said.
"Students really open up to their pen pals through writing," Anderegg said.
Sometimes they will even write about problems they are reluctant to share with school staff because writing about them is less intimidating than talking, she said.
For seniors who can't get out much, the Pen Pals program is a great volunteering option for them because they only have to make it to the school once a year for the reveal party, according to Anderegg.
She said some volunteers with the program live in assisted living centers. In the past, a few participating seniors even lived in nursing homes.
The Pen Pals program is also a popular option for seniors who go south for the winter, according to Anderegg.
Mary Hildman, a fourth-grade teacher at West Hancock, said the program is a "just a fun way to get kids engaged in writing."
She said it's less stressful for the kids "to do a friendly letter" rather than her telling them they are going to practice writing techniques, but they learn those techniques through the letter writing.
Exchanging hand-written letters is a new experience for many of the children.
Classmate Sophia Cassels said although she and her pen pal are different in a lot of ways, "we both like the same things."
Sophia said her pen pal has traveled to Spain, "which seems really cool. And I like to hear about her dog, Scrappy."
Nathan Bixel said his pen pal, John Bowman of Britt, is a retired math and science teacher, "and those two subjects are my favorite."
RSVP volunteer Joan Nielsen of Britt said writing the letters and getting replies is interesting "considering there's quite an age difference between me and the kids."
She said it's fun to hear about their interests and get their perspective on how the school year is going.
Although Forest City Elementary doesn't participate in the Pen Pals program, some RSVP volunteers from the community write to children in other schools that do participate, including Mason City and Clear Lake.
RSVP is sponsored by North Iowa Area Community College.
To learn more about RSVP and how to become a volunteer, visit www.niacc.edu/continuing-education/rsvp/ online or call Anderegg at 641-422-4303.