Class project brings Ohio Amish girl and Leechburg boy together
Two youngsters from different cultures connected in 2010, forming an unlikely friendship that has endured, thanks to the random flight path of a balloon.
A deflated and tattered orange helium balloon landed in the Leechburg backyard of the Young family on April 20 of that same year.
“It was not easy to read,” recalls Debbi Young, who was teaching fifth grade math at David Leech Elementary at the time and now teaches sixth grade at Leechburg Area High School. “My husband found the balloon and put two and two together and thought (Young and her class) could figure it out.”
Her students were thrilled with the balloon find, and Young was thrilled with the learning opportunity for her students.
The balloon's condition was deteriorated, but Young was able to make out an address by holding the balloon up to super bright lights. She deciphered the following message on the balloon for her class:
Anna Mae Yoder
her address (omitted for privacy)
Middi ..., Ohio 44062
I go to Valley View School
The balloons were released on 4-15-10
Please contact me if found
Young launched a writing and geography-based impromptu curriculum, having all of her students write to Anna Mae. The correspondence continued throughout the school year.
Middi, Ohio turned out to be Middlefield, a village in Geauga County and the fourth largest Amish population in the nation.
Yoder wrote back to Young's class within two weeks. Her note featured neat penmanship on Winnie-the-Pooh stationery and highlighted the fact that she was from an Amish family and was one of 10 siblings.
In her letter, Yoder explained her goal of becoming a teacher, her fondness for reading, cats and eating turkey. She also explained that as an Amish girl, she did not attend basketball games, one of the questions posed by Leechburg students.
Amish educate their students in one-room classrooms, up to the eighth grade.
Abe Gibson of Leechburg was a student in Young's class and thought the Amish aspect was “cool,” he says.
Abe's mother urged him to respond back to Yoder's letters promptly, within the week. “She made me do it,” Gibson says. “She wanted me to learn about a different lifestyle than my own.”
Gibson's family took a leap of faith while on summer vacation in 2010 near Middlefield.
It paid off.
“We decided to explore the town,” recalls Gibson, now a freshman at Seton Hill University in Greensburg.
The family actually drove past Yoder's home and then stopped to see if anyone was home.
“(The Yoders) were so welcoming the first time we met, even though it was unexpected,” Gibson says. “We all introduced ourselves and we explained why we were there.
Now, the Gibsons travel nearly three hours to Middlefield once a year to visit the Yoders, sometimes twice, Gibson says. Gibson says chats by the fire are enjoyed by all during visits as they catch up on happenings.
“It's unique to get to discuss the similarities and differences we see in our lives,” Gibson says.
Lifestyle differences include no electricity or cellphones for the Amish community.
The Amish are known for their hearty and delicious cooking, and Gibson says the most memorable Amish fare he sampled was a hot dessert with cream, Butterfinger cookies and angel food cake.
Yoder, now 19, attained her goal of becoming a teacher and works at an Amish school in Middlefield. She resides at home with her parents and also works on a pickle factory assembly line.
She describes her friendship with Abe as “special.” Gibson was among the invited guests at Yoder's sister's wedding.
“It's incredible to think that our friendship with the Yoders has grown so strong that we were included in such an important day with them,” he says. “We were able to partake in activities and spend time with the whole Amish community, not just their family.”
“It has been very special,” she says. “I don't know how to explain how great it's been. It is amazing how it all started with a balloon.”
Yoder explains that their school releases balloons all of the time for fun.
“We did not see this coming. It is amazing how it all started. Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Yoder says.
Young and her class were so inspired by the Amish balloon project, they released balloons from Leechburg on April 29, 2010. They would later receive notes from three people in different states including Maryland.
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.