Popular pen pal program connects Northside students with employees at Great Lakes

Great Lakes Employee Chris Rake writing to his sixth-grade pen pal at Black Hawk Middle School. Photo by Katie Wing

By Erika Zar
Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation

A pen pal program that pairs students at Gompers Elementary and Black Hawk Middle Schools with employees at Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates on International Lane grew for the third year in a row. This school year, 213 students in third through sixth grade participated, up from 166 last year and 133 the first year.

Pen pals correspond twice a month November through April, sending handwritten notes back and forth in composition-style notebooks. “When the notebooks are at the Great Lakes office, students ask all week long when they will get them back,” said Cassandra Meyer, sixth-grade teacher at Black Hawk Middle School. “Getting this chance to write about themselves and learn about someone completely new and unfamiliar to them is a real delight,” said Meyer.

Having a pen pal allows students to express themselves freely while practicing valuable penmanship and communication skills. Pen pals write about a wide variety of subjects from pets and favorite colors to sports and school life. Some pen pals exchange stickers and games like tic-tac-toe and word searches.

Great Lakes employee Stacey Kropp got creative to start the conversation with her third-grade pen pal. “I used fill-in-the-blank and ‘would you rather’ questions,” says Kropp. In response, her pen pal shared details of her life and drew pictures of her cat.

Chris Rake, a Great Lakes employee who corresponds with a sixth-grader, says his pen pal mostly discussed basketball but occasionally touched on more serious topics. “My pen pal wrote about having some hard days at school so I encouraged him to keep calm and focus on the positive. He took those words to heart and wrote that he remembered my advice the next time things got tough.” Reflecting on his relationship with his pen pal, Rake said he felt rewarded being able to help out and added, “Hey, everybody needs a fan!”

At the end of the school year, pen pals meet face to face at a party with ice cream, games and crafts. “The celebration is a fun way to cap off the year. Students and employees love meeting their pen pals in person, and spending time together allows them to get to know each other a little better,” said Stephanie Hayden, employee giving manager at Great Lakes.

The pen pal program is just one part of Great Lakes’ employee giving initiative, which also includes snack drives and school supply drives in partnership with the Foundation for Madison Public Schools (FMPS) and its Adopt-a-School program. For more information on partnering with local schools or starting a pen pal program at your organization, visit www.fmps.org/programs-grants/adopt-a-school.