YOUNGSTOWN - Gina Mancini and Ja'Kyra Martin had a lot to talk about when they met face-to-face for the first time.
The girls - one a Youngstown State University student and the other a fourth-grader - became pen pals last fall and have been corresponding ever since, along with more than 60 other pairs of students.
"We haven't talked since before Christmas break," said Mancini, 18, an engineering student from Canfield. "We will talk about what she got for Christmas, what she did for New Year's," she said with a smile as she waited for Martin and the other young pen pals to be led into the Harding Elementary cafeteria in Youngstown on Friday.
Tribune Chronicle / Bonnie L. Hazen
YSU junior Michelle O’Connor, 21, shows pictures on her cell phone of her dogs to her pen pal, Harding Elementary School student Gloryanne Rodriguez, as they talk face-to-face for the first time Friday in Youngstown. They have been corresponding as part of a YSU Penguin Pen Pals partnership since September.
The partnership of YSU Penguin Pen Pals and the elementary school students was initiated by a local retired physician who tutors at Harding.
Dr. Rashid Abdu said he got the idea after he interviewed a student intern who had listed a similar program with her extra-curricular activities.
"I said, 'What's that?'" he recalled. "She told me it was a pen pal program for honor students and elementary students. I was really intrigued by the idea."
Abdu contacted manager of Community Partnerships with the Youngstown City School District Claudia Charity, who then contacted Amy Cossentino, associate director of University Honors and Scholars programs at YSU. A committee was formed and the pen pal partnership was born last spring.
Participants from YSU must be members of the Honors and Scholars society, and their Harding pen pals include fourth- and fifth-grade students from classes taught by Tammy Foley-Frondorf, Cathy Cammack, Kelly Swiger and Rachel Schmidt.
The fifth-graders were a recent addition to the program.
"They had to add on more students from other grades, because it just keeps growing," said Michelle O'Conner, 21, a YSU junior who is studying biology and psychology.
Cossentino said she wasn't surprised to see the program met with such excitement, although "what I didn't expect was that four months later, the excitement level is still as high as it was."
O'Conner said she enjoys corresponding with her pen pal, Gloryanne Rodriguez.
"Gloryanne tells me all about her day, how she likes snow, how she's excited about Christmas," she said as she held up the composition book that is passed back and forth between the students. Each book also sports a photo of the pen pals on the cover.
The teachers also shared their enthusiasm for the program.
"This gives the students experience with writing letters and communicating with others in the community," said Foley-Frondorf, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders. She also said many of her students are shy, and this helps them to open up more on a social level - especially meeting face-to-face.
"When you get to see what they look like and see what their personality is, it's easier to write to them," she said.
Ashley Orr, 18, student leader of the pen pal program, agreed.
"It gives these kids a real-world outlet, helps to grow their English and especially their communication," she said, explaining that the partnership also has been beneficial for YSU students.
"Coming in as a freshman, it really helped me grow," she said.
Orr also has a pen pal, and she was incredibly excited to meet hers - a girl named India who shares her passion for math.
"She's just so full of life. She's just adorable," she said.
Chantell Wilkie was bouncing in her seat as she talked face-to-face with her YSU pen pal, Lisa Ridgley. Ridgley, 21, of Lisbon, smiled at Wilkie as they chatted over hot chocolate and cookies.
"You never know the difference you make, just in what you say," Ridgley said.
Wilkie said her next letter to Ridgley will say, "I miss you."
During the visit, O'Conner shared pictures of her dogs with her pen pal. Rodriguez in turn told her what she planned on doing when she got out of school that day.
"I love her," Rodriguez said of her pen pal.
Abdu said he has received feedback from the teachers on the positive effect the correspondence is having on the children's attitudes.
"We hope this will make a difference in some of these kids' lives. It's sort of a win-win type of program," he said.