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So Much To Say

National Postal Museum Promotes Cross-Generational Exchange

by Leslie O'Flahaven

Volume 3, Issue 4
October–December 1994

Last winter, the National Postal Museum organized an intergenerational letter writing program in which a group of students corresponded with a group of senior citizens. After months of writing, the two groups were introduced to each other at the museum. The following article traces their meeting.

Nearly 50 people were crowded in the Discovery Center at the National Postal Museum. Half of them were senior citizens from the Washington Seniors Wellness Center; and the other half were eighth graders from Stuart Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C. The two groups had been exchanging letters for the past four months as part of a letter writing pilot program created by the National Postal Museum called "Across Town Pen Friends." 

Before they were officially introduced, both groups hung back a little. The students were giggling; the seniors were scanning the young faces, trying to match a face to a familiar name. 

Though slightly shy in these opening moments, the correspondents had shared personal anecdotes, biographies and reflections over the months. Mary Harrell, one of the seniors, wrote about how her father had to go down to Mr. Kitchen's store to pick up the mail when she was a girl. Elias Howard closed his letter with words of encouragement for young Antoine: ". . . . I trust you are keeping up with your studies. Being a sincere student will mean so much in your life. Stay alert—the world could be yours." 

Before long, the pen-friends exchanged handshakes and hugs, and headed off together to visit the exhibits of the National Postal Museum. One senior remarked, "The [program] was exciting . . . we had so much in common . . . writing to each other gives one a chance to think more. I knew my pen friend through her writing." Another senior observed, ". . . my pen friend saw many things and wrote about them that [sic] I missed. She made my museum visits meaningful." Likewise, students appreciated the program: "I enjoyed expressing my feelings to somebody other than my friends . . . writing to my partner made me look at the museum more carefully . . . unlike a phone call, you can read [a letter] over and over again." 

The participants in "Across Town Pen Friends" exchanged letters that focused on a series of visits to the postal museum. Writing workshops at the museum established the correspondence; and at the earliest stage of the program, the students and seniors exchanged letters introducing themselves to their partners. 

The first visit to the museum focused on the role of letters in bridging distances between families and friends. The focus of the second visit resolved around the question, "Is the postal service necessary?" Each visit began with a discussion and brief writing exercise so participants could consider the theme of the visit before the tour. During the guided gallery tour, the pen friends studied objects in the collection, read historical letters, viewed films and wrote down ideas to include in the letters. The pen friends then wrote to one another, and discussed what they had seen and how they were affected by their museum visit. 

For every participant, "Across Town Pen Friends" had several benefits. It introduced each person to a new museum in Washington, D.C. The program fostered intergenerational communication—students and seniors genuinely connected with their counterparts. 

"Across Town Pen Friends" also had many specific values for each group. For the seniors, the program fostered feelings of self-worth. The letter writing gave seniors the opportunity to share their insights and wisdom with adolescents. It also gave seniors a chance to model letter writing skills for a generation largely unskilled in letter writing. 

The eight graders gained respect for an older person's point of view and interpretation of history. The letters provided the adolescents the undivided attention of an older person. 

This fall, the National Postal Museum has begun building a national program based on "Across Town Pen Friends." The new curriculum packet, "Across The Nation Pen Friends," will be available to groups of seniors and students who want to take advantage of the cultural resources within their community, and have the opportunity to share their lives with each other. At a national level, pen friends will be offered a related series of writing projects that use local cultural resources as a focus, in much the same vein that the National Postal Museum was used. Each packet will include directions for obtaining writing partners and guidance as to how to sustain the project. 

"Across Town Pen Friends" unites people who yearn to communicate but rarely get the chance. As Lola B. Washington, one of the senior participants wrote to her pen friend Katie, "I'm 81 years old and love learning new things. That is one big reason why I'm looking forward to hearing from you. We can learn so much from each other, just by communicating. My motto is 'live and learn; learn and live.' Be happy and hope to hear from you soon. Your pen pal, Lola." 

Order the Across The Nation Pen Friends curriculum packet