Intergenerational penpals meet through Bartlett library

With wide eyes and slight timidity, some of the children - ages 6 to 12 - needed time to take everything in, from the retired nuns' habits to the walkers and wheelchairs dotting the room.

Others greeted their elderly partner with a hug and a smile, excited to finally meet the stranger they had been communicating with via letters for the past three months.

The unique gathering at Clare Oaks Retirement Community in Bartlett was a particularly special event for Kimberly Gotches, a youth librarian at the Bartlett Public Library.

In February, Gotches started a new endeavor called "Pages Across Ages: An Intergenerational Reading and Writing Exchange," to connect kids who visit the library with residents at Clare Oaks.

"Intergenerational programming is really my passion," Gotches said. "I've just always seen the benefit of connecting the generations. It's a perfect opportunity to use the library as a launching pad for that."

Each month, the 22 pairs of seniors and children read the same children's classic book on their own and then write letters to each other in which they discuss the book and anything else they want to share. Letters are dropped off at a fake mailbox at each location, and Gotches delivers them.

The Clare Oaks event was the first opportunity most of the pairs had to meet each other in person.

"I was emphatically pleased with how the event went," Gotches said of the recent gathering. "Several of the Clare Oaks residents and the library patrons have already contacted me to say how much they enjoyed the event. They want to know when the next one will be."

<h3 class="briefHead">New friends </h3>

Ella McCall, 85, has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but decided to take part in Pages Across Ages because it sounded like a good opportunity to touch the life of another child.

"A lot of children these days don't like to read and write," said McCall, who worked as a teacher for 25 years. "Anything that promotes reading - I'm all for it."

Her partner, 7-year-old Sarah Leardi, said she loves to read, but some of her peers don't like to write because it "hurts their hands."

At Clare Oaks, the pair enjoyed a game of bingo that made them ask questions about each other. They have read three books together, including "The Velveteen Rabbit," and Sarah said they are about to starting reading "Meet Felicity," a book from the "American Girl" series.

Her mom, Dawn Leardi, works at the library and is very pleased with the program.

"Seniors and children have so much they can teach each other," she said. "Children learn to respect seniors, and seniors can kind of recapture their youth."

Watching a relationship blossom between her 10-year-old daughter, Angelina, and Sister Claire Egonsowski has brought joy and inspiration to Lupe Monsivais.

"After this, I really intend to volunteer and help (at Clare Oaks)," Monsivais said during a break from coloring with Angelina and Egonsowski. "We should do more with (the seniors) more often."

Angelina said she really enjoys the program because her grandmother lives in Texas, and she doesn't get to interact with seniors often. One book the pair both enjoyed together was "Ramona the Pest."

"This brings back a lot of memories," Egonsowski said, adding that she worked in education for 30 years. "It's very worthwhile."

<h3 class="briefHead">Spreading the word</h3>

Bartlett Library Director Karolyn Ann Nance said she loves the way the program connects people.

"It's just a unique approach because it's all about letter-writing," she said. "It's a way to touch base with the kids and the seniors without the technology."

"What I would really encourage Kim to do is just try to get out there and share this information with other libraries because it's such a wonderful program," she added.

Gotches has applied to make a poster presentation at the Illinois Library Association's annual conference this October in Peoria in hopes of sharing the idea.

Most local libraries don't have programs exactly like Pages Across Ages, but offer other intergenerational opportunities to connect people.

Jennifer Drinka, head of children and programming services at the Warren-Newport Library in Gurnee, said a monthly "stitch and share" gathering attracts stitchers of all ages. Often, she said, the older attendees help the children who show up.

At the Gail Borden Library in Elgin, exhibits often draw the interest of patrons from every age group, said Jennifer Bueche, director of youth services. For example, she recently saw an older woman from India teaching other patrons how to wear a sari near the "Children Just Like Me" exhibit, which highlights the lives of people in different cultures.

Bueche said Gotches' idea is a "really unique twist" on intergenerational programming, but added that "any public library is a great place for generations to interact."

At the Palatine Public Library, teen volunteers have made cards for homebound seniors in the past and events like a Harry Potter fan fest bring together people of all ages, said Tracie Amirante, popular materials department librarian. And the library hosted a reading and pen-pal program with children at a Canadian library last year, and at the end of four months the participants were able to video chat.

<h3 class="briefHead">The next chapter</h3>

Today there is a waiting list of kids hoping to be part of the Pages Across Ages program.

Gotches said all she had to do to get kids excited about the program was tell them there were some seniors who would love for the children to write them letters.

"(One mom) said her child never got excited about reading," Gotches said. "With this there's an extra motivation. They're getting practice writing too.

"Everybody that walks into the library asks about it now. You start to see the connections in the community."

Gotches is still in the process of trying to get more seniors interested. Currently all the senior participants are women, and about half of them are former nuns.

Expanding children's views on what aging means is one of Gotches' goals, and she thinks it is working so far.

Some of the kids were surprised when their partners write "all kinds of lively stuff" to them, she said. A few of the pairs' relationships have grown so much that they even send little gifts to each other. One girl, for example, sent her partner Girl Scout cookies, while one of the seniors sent her partner a crocheted bookmark.

"I definitely think that getting some excitement over what reading can do and what the library can offer would be nice," Gotches said, adding she plans to continue the program as long as possible. "Both sides gain something from it."

  These are some of the books read during the Pages Across Ages intergenerational reading and writing exchange at Bartlett Public Library. Bill Zars/
  Meeting for the first time, former teacher Ella McCall and Sarah Leardi, 7, look at a book that McCall won at the meet and greet at Clare Oaks Retirement Community. They are participants in the Pages Across Ages intergenerational reading and writing exchange through the Bartlett Public Library. Bill Zars/
  Anna Fleck, 8, and Pat Ozcomert chat at Clare Oaks Retirement Community. They met for the first time after corresponding to each other for two months as part of Pages Across Ages. Bill Zars/
  Sister Magdalene Kabat tells a joke about getting peanut butter off the roof of your mouth during a get-together at the Clare Oaks Retirement Center for children and seniors who participated in the Pages Across Ages intergenerational reading and writing exchange through the Bartlett Public Library. Bill Zars/
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