Pen pal program connects RSVP volunteers with third graders at New Albin Elementary and East Elementary in Waukon

Meeting the person behind the pen ... RSVP volunteer Vickie shares a treat, some conversation and a smile with her two pen pals from third grade at East Elementary School in Waukon. The pen pals have been writing to one another since the end of September of this year and got a chance to meet in person for the first time at this Monday, December 12 event pictured above. Photo courtesy of Northeast Iowa RSVP 55+ Initiative.

Pen pals get to meet at New Albin Elementary School ... The third grade classroom of Mrs. Jessica Kurth at New Albin Elementary School was bustling with RSVP Pen Pal Program volunteers meeting with their third grade pen pals Monday, December 12. Originally started several years ago with elementary schools in the Cresco area, the RSVP Pen Pal Program expanded into Allamakee County this year and involved both New Albin Elementary and East Elementary School in Waukon, in addition to another elementary school in Decorah. Photo courtesy of Northeast Iowa RSVP 55+ Initiative.

by Ellen Modersohn

Waukon’s East Elementary School cafeteria was bursting with excitement Monday, December 12. Not only was it holiday dress-up day, with teachers and their students bundled in bright reds and greens, but 65 third graders were eagerly meeting their semester-long pen pals in person for the first time.

Over the past several years Northeast Iowa RSVP 55+ Initiative conducted a pen pals program between its volunteers and third graders at Crestwood Elementary School in Cresco. This year the program expanded to include five schools: two in Cresco, one in Decorah and at New Albin Elementary School in the Eastern Allamakee Community School District in addition to East Elementary in Waukon.

Sharilyn Decker of Waukon, a new RSVP member, recalls having a pen pal when she was a child: “Pen pals were very common growing up, and I always wrote to my friends.”

While kids these days usually write via a digital medium, Decker said, “Kids love to get snail mail!”

Students in the RSVP pen pals program learn how to construct a letter, address an envelope, ask and answer questions and hold a written conversation. Some classes also use the experience to practice reading and writing cursive handwriting. Decker helped her pen pal by writing her letters in cursive with a printed “translation” beneath.

This semester’s program began with students and volunteers filling out an “All About Me” form sharing some of their favorite things and telling a little bit about themselves. Then the students wrote a letter to their pals at the end of September and the volunteers responded with their own letter. They each wrote one letter per month before meeting in December. The program uses only first names and letters are shuttled between the RSVP program and the schools, so no addresses are needed.

Jessica Kurth, third-grade teacher at New Albin Elementary, said, “Knowing that we were going to have someone reading it and we were going to receive a letter back in return” gave her students a purpose in learning to write a letter.

Students weren’t the only ones learning from and enjoying the exchange. Decker said, “It was fun to get updated on some of the younger generation’s likes and favorites and things.” One of Decker’s two pen pals had a pet that they liked to watch. It was an axolotl - a type of salamander. “I had no idea what that was, so I looked it up and found it to be a very popular and interesting pet,” she said.

A total of 84 Allamakee County eight- and nine-year-olds participated in the program this year, writing to 48 volunteers, many of whom doubled-up on pen pals. Ann Hart, of Waukon and an eight-year RSVP volunteer, said writing to her two students was fun and easy. “Third graders are clever and interested in many things, so they ask a lot of questions,” she said.

The volume of voices in the East Elementary cafeteria and in Kurth’s New Albin classroom rose to a high level as gray heads bent close to hear the children’s questions and stories. Juice boxes and specially decorated cookies from the Beyond the Bar bakery in Decorah made the meetings even more of a celebration.

Another of the goals of the pen pal program, said RSVP Director Deana Hageman, is to help different generations connect socially. Questions from the students could sometimes be amusing as some asked how old their pen pals were, whether they liked trick or treating and how old they were when they first rode a bike without training wheels.

RSVP intends to conduct the program in Allamakee County again next year, and organizers hope for a one-to-one ratio of volunteers and students. “I encourage others to be pen pals,” Hart said. “It’s an easy volunteer opportunity that is fulfilling to the child and the volunteer.”

RSVP is a part of AmeriCorps Seniors, a federal agency that connects seniors with volunteer programs according to their skills and interests. To participate in the next pen pals program or other volunteer opportunities, contact RSVP at or 563-277-5181.