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Article Published August 19, 2020

Patty Coletti: The Value of Teachers, Mentors, and Pen Pals

By Maria Caulfield/Zip06.com

Who would have thought that in the year 2020, old-school pen pal writing would make a comeback?

Or that in the age of emails and texts, letters handwritten on regular paper and sent via postal mail would be a good idea at all?

It might be one of the few unintended, yet positive, effects of the pandemic. Indeed, for those without access to email, sending letters becomes a way to fill a need for human connection as the days of social distancing and remote learning continue.

The idea has taken root at the Haddam-Killingworth Youth & Family Services (HKYFS), where a pen pal program has begun to connect adults with grade-school-aged children.

“Students are sent an envelope of writing supplies and stamped envelopes after receiving parental permission. Adults and children share about their families, hobbies, school activities, and other aspects,” explains Patrice Coletti, Haddam-Killingworth Mentoring Program coordinator and consultant.

“Most of the pen pals include artwork, pictures of pets, and riddles or jokes in their letters. I’m not certain whether the adults or children are more excited to find a letter in their mailbox,” she adds.

Even in the early days of the program, Patty, as she is known to all, says that heartwarming relationships have already developed and touching messages have been exchanged.

She refers to two instances.

“One child asked her adult pen pal how old she was and her pen pal answered honestly and happily,” she recounts. “One little boy closed his letter by saying, ‘I hope you and your wife enjoy your walks together.’”

Pen pal writing has other benefits, too. It encourages children to think about the things they want to write and helps them learn how to clearly put them into words. In addition, it lifts the spirits of older adults and increases their mental wellbeing as they become engaged in the lives of the young letter writers.

Recalling the pen pal program’s inception, Patty explains that a lightbulb lit in her head when she read an article in The Source about a similar pen pal program at the Madison Senior Center.

“I read about the pen pal program in Madison with the senior citizens and children and thought that we could maybe connect adults and students in our community through letter writing while schools remained closed,” she says.

“I communicated with [Madison Senior Services Assistant Director] Heather Noblin from the Senior Center about her pen pal program and she shared some information which was very helpful.”

Patty is referring to the pen pal program started by the Madison Senior Center in conjunction with the Madison Youth & Family Services. While Madison has decided that an email version of a pen pal program would be the best way to connect with seniors and help fight social isolation, HKYFS is embarking on a regular postal pen pal project.

The Haddam-Killingworth Pen Pal Program is a component of the recently developed HK Mentoring Program when the original mentoring program was drastically affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Patty had been working with three individuals in lining up the program—HKYFS Executive Director Laurie Ruderfer, volunteer and former educator Ray Galloway, and Mentoring Consulting Group President Dr. Susan Weinberger.

But just as the original mentoring program was set to roll out, it had to be shelved because the pandemic curtailed the ability for those involved to have face-to-face human interaction and halted most activities for both students and adults.

“Ray and I have worked for a year and a half to develop this new program,” she says. “We were getting very close to launching the new mentoring program as the schools closed in March. We had a mentor training scheduled for April and then everything was put on hold. It appeared that we wouldn’t be able to move forward with the program at all.”

But persistence always pays off and, in this case, the team adapted and continued to work. She explains that changes in their plans resulted in a “modified mentoring program which will include letter writing, virtual meetings, and possibly message rooms.”

She adds that Dr. Weinberger will hold a virtual training on Tuesday, Aug. 25, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. via Zoom for anyone interested in mentoring.

For more information about mentoring and the virtual training or to request a Zoom invitation, contact Patty at MentorProgram@hkyfs.org.

Dedicated to Children

Patty’s involvement with children is not new. Although she serves the HKYFS as a consultant, she was a full-time early childhood coordinator with the youth service agency from 2015 to 2018.

“Youth & Family Services of HK is committed to enhancing child and youth development, enriching families, and promoting healthy Haddam-Killingworth communities. They provide counseling services, community coalitions, and youth programs. They also offer community events and fundraisers. The largest and most popular event is the annual Pumpkin Run held every October,” she says.

“As the early childhood coordinator, I would invite preschool-age children and families to monthly play groups, provide parent workshops, and work with the elementary schools during their kindergarten screening days and kindergarten orientation visits,” she adds.

She also worked as a school teacher at the Killingworth Elementary School (KES) much of her professional life. In various years from 1999 to 2015, she worked as a teacher for students in kindergarten to grade 2 and as a math specialist for students in kindergarten to grade 5.

“I have to say that teaching 2nd grade children was really enjoyable. The children are so conversational and their reading and writing skills are just exploding,” she says.

She adds that the 2nd graders would spend time each day at a writers’ workshop to learn the art of writing. The children would compose, edit, revise, and published their own stories, both fiction and nonfiction. Toward the end of the year, the class would hold an authors’ day event.

“Families would visit, browse the room, read books published by the 2nd-grade authors, chat with the authors, and ask for the authors’ autographs. [It’s] one of my favorite days of the year,” she says.

She explains that even as she taught her students, she learned much from the young schoolchildren.

“I love their innocence and the belly laughs you get to witness stemming from the silliest joke. Children make you laugh more and show you that it’s not as hard as you believe it is to learn something new,” she recalls.

“Much of the new learning isn’t easy, but children meet new challenges with such enthusiasm and interest. I think adults can learn a lot from observing children and watching how open they are to new learning, new experiences, and new people,” she says.

Prior to working at KES, she also taught grade 1 students at the Edith C. Stevens School in Cromwell.

She earned her B.S and M.S. in elementary education with a concentration in reading for her master’s degree.

She has been married for 35 years to Ted, and together they have two children, Richard and Mary.

Mentoring continues to be a passion for Patty and she hopes to get the HK Mentoring Program growing strong for the community.

“Children and families need as much support as possible and so much more support during this difficult year. In these challenging times, people of all ages need more engagement and more friends to connect with,” she says.

“I’m hoping the Haddam-Killingworth Mentoring Program will grow and that both the mentees and mentors will benefit from their new friendship. Ideally, every child should be paired with a mentor.”

To nominate a Person of the Week, email m.caulfield@shorepublishing.com.