Sun City pen pals connect through pen and paper

A.+Panier

A. Panier

Abby Panier

With direct messaging and emails immediately sending online, physical mail has dwindled to the occasional holiday card and dreaded bills. Who needs letters when you can just text your best friend or grandma?

However, as much as technology can be connecting, the pandemic has proven that it can also be dividing. Social interaction is not the same without a genuine human connection, which is where the Sun City pen pal program comes in.

Originally created to help Medical Academy students rack in some volunteer hours, students and residents alike agree that it has flourished more than anyone thought. It teaches teenagers looking to enter the medical field how to push aside differences and look for a shared passion or characteristic.

“One of the things that I think medical professionals need to be able to do is to talk to and connect with people,” said Renae St. Clair, head of the Medical Academy. “Regardless of age, we all have something in common.”

Not all pen pals formed a strong connection, but many found unexpected common ground after the first letter arrived which introduced their pen pal’s hobbies, interests, and other facts. 

“It was fun to talk to them about stuff like what kind of music they like and I actually listened to one of my pen pal’s favorite songs,” Sun City resident Terry Kafenshtok said. “It opened a lot of doors.”

News spread quickly after an article was published in The Sun Day newspaper asking for residents willing to write back and forth with a Huntley High School medical student. 

“It came at a time when we were under a lot more restrictions, so we had a lot of time on our hands,” Kafenshtok said.

“I tell all my friends about [my pen pal],” Sun City resident Judy Stage said. “I feel like I know her even though I had no idea of anything about her.”

The program was not all sunshine and rainbows though. There were some bumps in the road that at times caused letters to not arrive for up to a month. When the letters did come, pen pals exchanged long responses containing all manner of things, from a favorite sport to plans after high school. 

“You never know what you’re going to have in common when you start talking to each other,” Sun City resident Tom Fitzpatrick said. “That’s true in any situation. Once you start talking to a total stranger, you can find out things you have in common.”

Some pen pals dove into even deeper topics like politics and religion. It was easier to discuss harder subjects when they were able to write them down. 

“I personally like talking to the older generations and the people who went through life before me,” senior Faith Doy said.

“Teenagers are awesome. They are so much fun,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’ve got a lot of things going on and they’re typically more mature.”

Several pen pals shared their hopes and dreams for the future with their Sun City correspondent. Events and accomplishments that may be overlooked by peers or family were genuinely hyped up by a pen pal.

“When I was reading [the letters], it kind of gave me chills,” St. Clair said. “There’s somebody out there who is really excited for you and really cares.”

The letters have also offered a reminiscent of high school for Sun City residents. Things like Prom and senior pranks may have changed with the times, but the excitement and overall idea have never disappeared for either generation.

“We hear all your football games on Friday nights and the music,” Stage said. “It seems like just the other day that was me going to the games at school. Time goes by really fast, but it’s fun seeing what the kids are doing nowadays.”

These letters are simple in nature, but when put into the context of a global pandemic limiting social interaction, they become all the more important.

“I think we take so much for granted, and we forget to appreciate things sometimes,” St. Clair said.

“It added an unexpected joy to [being home],” Kafenshtok said. “I’ll be honest when the letters would come and we would get the mail, my husband and I would both be like ‘Okay whose pen pal is it?’ because we really looked forward to getting the letters.”

Although many pen pals have exchanged personal information so they can keep writing during the summer and outside of school, not a lot have met their pen pal in person. Kafenshtok, Fitzpatrick, Doy, and Stage have not gotten together with their pen pals, waiting for the latest outbreak of COVID to calm down or to get vaccinated.

“I haven’t met [my pen pal],”  Fitzpatrick said. “But I feel like I’ve known them for a long time and we’re going to continue to be pen pals even after they go away to college.”