After pen pal experience, West Jefferson Hills students meet
Lia Banks wrote to her new high school friend about all the different kinds of bath bombs she got for Christmas.
Ryder Mulvihill wanted to know what his high school pen pal got for Easter. So, he asked in his letters.
"It felt amazing," Lia, 7, a second grader at Gill Hall Elementary School, said of having the opportunity to make a new friend at Thomas Jefferson High School through monthly letters. "I just liked to talk to someone else."
All 244 second graders in the West Jefferson Hills School District wrote letters to Thomas Jefferson High School students over the last several months, as the nearly 150 members of the high school Big Jag Little Cub club corresponded through letters to their younger peers.
After months of letter writing — utilizing Google Classroom for the "Big Jags" and handwritten letters and drawings for the "Little Cubs" — the two met in person for the first time April 6 at a celebration-style event at the high school.
The club — named in honor of the Thomas Jefferson Jaguars — was formed three years ago with the goal for high school students to mentor younger kids in the district, said club sponsor Nicole Cook, a biology and environmental science teacher at the high school.
For the high school students, "They can see that they can make a difference in another person's life," Cook said.
For the little ones, not only are they improving their letter writing skills, but they see that someone else cares about them, Cook said.
The program also unites the district.
"We're not separate schools," she said. "We are all one community. This brings everyone together."
Several years ago, the high school student council did a similar program for a select group of second graders.
This ties in second graders from all three elementary schools.
In the classroom, teachers were able to use the correspondence to develop the second graders letter writing skills, where they focused on format and grammar, said Joni Craighead, second grade teacher at Gill Hall Elementary.
They saw improvement throughout the year.
Some high school students had as many as three pen pals, said Stevie Ciechalski, 17, a senior, who serves as one of the club presidents.
Getting to meet the younger kids in person was what Ciechalski was most excited about.
"We learn how to watch kids and handle kids from this," he said.
Annessa Evans, 18, and Caitlin Moyer-Dinardo, 17, both seniors, laughed about how much has changed since they were in second grade.
"They love the 'Descendants,'" Moyer-Dinardo said.
"For us, it was 'High School Musical' and 'Hannah Montana,'" Evans said, finishing her friend's thoughts.
Joshua Niedermeyer, 14, a freshman, tried on crowns and posed for pictures with his two pen pals — Ryan Dugan, 8, and Christopher Lippi, 8, both students at Gill Hall.
In his letters, Joshua shared what it's like to be a high school student.
"I wish I could be in high school now," Christopher said. "It sounds pretty fun. I know there's lockers and you put your stuff in them."
Christopher, who is in his first year Gill Hall, said the pen pal program also allowed him to make a new friend.
"I learned you have more than one friend," he said.
Juliana Foshee, 8, and Jadyn Reinhart, 16, a sophomore, greeted with hugs.
The two found out they had a lot in common and agreed they're going to continuing talking.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.