pen pal program volunteers

(Spirit Lake, Iowa) A fourth-grade student recently told a Northwest Iowa RSVP volunteer assisting at the Okoboji Elementary School, “Our class doesn’t get to have Pen Pals.” Students and teachers want to have Pen Pals, but at least 100 more volunteers, age 55 and up, are needed to join the Dickinson County RSVP Pen Pal program to serve all the third and fourth-grade classes in Dickinson County schools wanting to participate.

Spirit Lake third graders in Mrs. Sara Laven’s class have been writing to Pen Pals matched through the program each year since 2019. In this past school year, all 23 of Laven’s students demonstrated improvement in the six literacy competency areas targeted by the program, including interest/enthusiasm for writing letters, writing vocabulary/proficiency, and improved social and intergenerational comfort, among others.

“The Pen Pal writing program has been one of the most beneficial things I’ve incorporated into my writing curriculum! It gives the students a real-world, authentic experience in the art of letter writing. It also teaches them valuable skills about communicating through the written word and addressing envelopes,” explained Laven.

Beginning in the fall of 2022, Laven will transition from teaching third grade to teaching fourth-grade language arts at Spirit Lake Elementary School. She made a special request for the Pen Pal program to move with her and asked if it would be possible for all 85 of her fourth-grade students to participate. In addition to Laven’s request, Okoboji Elementary School has four sections of fourth-graders who would like to participate in the program; last year only two sections were able to participate. Graettinger-Terril Elementary School third-graders also participated in the Pen Pal program last year and would like to continue for the 2022-2023 school year.

Dickinson County RSVP needs a minimum of 165 senior volunteer Pen Pals to make this happen. Currently, Dickinson County RSVP has a membership of 125 volunteers, with only 63 volunteers presently participating in the Pen Pals program.

Pen Pal volunteers don’t need to commit a lot of time to the program, as they write one letter per month for three months during the term that fits their schedule best from either September to December, January through April, or February to May. Students then send one final letter and an invitation asking volunteers to attend a Meet and Greet party, an in-person event for students and volunteers to meet each other.

“The most wonderful part of the Pen Pal program is the culminating activity where students and volunteer Pen Pals meet in person. It is a day my students look forward to for many, many weeks ahead of time! It is one of the most heartwarming experiences of my school year,” shared Mrs. Laven. “Students make wonderful connections with volunteers in our community, and many students and RSVP volunteers continue to exchange letters even after the school program has ended.”

Northwest Iowa RSVP is an AmeriCorps Seniors volunteer program. AmeriCorps brings people together to tackle the country’s most pressing challenges through national service and volunteering. AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers serve with organizations dedicated to improving communities and helping make service to others a cornerstone of national culture.

DeNeitt VanDenBroeke, Dickinson County RSVP Coordinator, explains, “Mrs. Laven does a fantastic job teaching her students the valuable skills involved in communication and letter writing. We will happily follow Mrs. Laven to participate with at least one of her fourth-grade sections. Hopefully, we can gain enough volunteers to help all Spirit Lake fourth-grade students benefit from the Pen Pal program. Until then, we continue doing our best to recruit more volunteers to participate.”

Northwest Iowa RSVP needs the help of more volunteers to ensure no third or fourth-grade students wanting to participate in the Pen Pal program need to say, “Our class doesn’t get to have Pen Pals this year.”

To share stories of childhood, travels, life, and interests with an area third or fourth-grade student, please contact DeNeitt VanDenBroeke, Dickinson County RSVP Coordinator, at 712-336-6577 or email at dvandenbroeke@iowalakes.edu.