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Seniors make ‘Kick Butts’ gifts to help educate their young pen pals | TribLIVE.com
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Seniors make ‘Kick Butts’ gifts to help educate their young pen pals

Mary Pickels

Seated at tables off the lobby area of South Greengate Commons, a Westmoreland County Housing Authority property for seniors, residents use markers, scissors and poster board to create “table tent” messages.

“I love you, don’t smoke,” reads one.

A resident peels off a “Kick Butts Day” sticker to add to her creation, a colorful image of an adult exhaling smoke while a nearby child coughs.

Esther Ulery, tobacco prevention/cessation specialist with Penn State Extension, will deliver the table tents (papers folded in half to stand and display the messages) to first-grade students at Fort Allen Elementary School in the Hempfield Area School District in advance of Kick Butts Day, March 20.

The initiative educates children on the dangers of tobacco use and second-hand smoke.

The Fort Allen students are not receiving the message from strangers, but rather from their pen pals.

And the goal is for the children to take the art work home and talk with their families about what they have learned.

This year marks the third year for the intergenerational program partnership between the school district and the housing authority.

Students and seniors are paired and exchange letters and cards throughout the school year, culminating in a face-to-face meeting at the school each May.

The more ‘grandparents,’ the better

The pen pal program is one of several that has won the housing authority national recognition through the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, says Lynn Wackenhuth, South Greengate Commons property manager.

The exchanges help the students with their communication skills, says their instructor, Roxanne Fox.

“We really work on the writing part of it,” she says.

“Students don’t look at writing as a form of communication. Everything is a device,” Fox says.

“I also think it’s really good for them to have that connection to the community,” she adds.

The children write about things they like, and sometimes find some things in common with their pen pals.

The spring get-together typically includes an activity the “youngers” and “olders” all can do together at the school.

“They (students) can’t wait for that day. It’s very interesting, because they have an idea (in their minds) of what their pen pals look like,” Fox says.

Ulery spoke with the students about tobacco use earlier in the year.

“A lot of kids have parents who smoke. They don’t get that (cessation) message at home. They learn that someone is not a bad person if they smoke. But we want to help them make good choices for a healthy life,” Fox says.

Never too late to learn

After leading the older pen pals in a series of stretches, Ulery asks them to think about messages encouraging smokers to go outside.

“ ‘No smoking in the house’ or ‘smoke-free,’ ” she suggests.

“Clean air is important — why?” Ulery asks.

“For your lungs, for your heart,” several respond.

“Why don’t we want to smoke in cars when there are children around?” Ulery asks.

“We want to keep them healthy and keep them in school,” a resident answers. “Those 21 children in that class, they are like your grandchildren,” Ulery tells them.

They discuss the detriments of smoking, from lung cancer to emphysema to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and skin damage. “Smoking affects every part of your body,” Ulery says.

Society is changing, Ulery notes, from fewer depictions of smoking from television characters to restaurants and bars now operating largely smoke-free.

The residents’ efforts, she adds, can become tools for children to educate their parents and grandparents.

Happy to help

Cathy Anthony, 67, says she began smoking as a college student.

“It was just a cool thing to do. Nobody knew about the dangers and poisons,” she says.

“I never would have started, had I known,” she adds.

She has been smoke-free for 26 years, after acknowledging it was a bad habit and fearing lung cancer or emphysema, she says.

“I used the patch. It (smoking) is a hard monkey to get off your back,” Anthony says.

Marie E. Ruffin, 71, has two pen pals. The grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of 14 has shown the students how to learn their ABCs by singing.

“The children are really excited when we come. We are probably more excited. My pen pal remembered (from her letters) that I like music and that I played guitar and organ. Then she asked if she could come home with me,” Ruffin says.

“I smoked as a teenager and got bronchitis in my early 20s. They told me never touch smoke or be around it again,” she says.

“I think this (project) is great, kind of like a reminder to the parents as well — ‘somebody took the time to make this,’” she says.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, mpickels@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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