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Image: Second-grade pupile writing to pen pal
Courtesy of Rainy Brake
A second-grader in North Carolina crafts a handwritten letter to a pen pal in the rare Cherokee language. In elementary schools across the country, pen-pal programs are helping kids learn to love writing the old-fashioned way.
TODAY contributor
updated 4/26/2012 12:30:56 PM ET 2012-04-26T16:30:56

While so many of us click away on our computers and cell phones and tablets, kids across the United States are mastering the old art of letter writing — and forging some unforgettable friendships in the process.

Sure, plenty of tech-savvy young people can be quick to reduce the English language to text speak, but they’re still fully capable of wielding pens. Here are stories of elementary school children who have cultivated meaningful pen-pal relationships with a near-centenarian, a soldier at war and fellow Cherokee Indians.

Image: Robert Ford, 98, with dozens of letters and cards from first-graders
Courtesy of Laura Gamble
Robert Ford is 98 and lives alone — but he has dozens of newfound friends thanks to a pen-pal effort launched by first-graders at an elementary school in Georgia.

A 98-year-old’s wish comes true
It started when a woman in Alaska sent out a mass email about her father-in-law, Robert Ford, who lives alone in Kansas: All the 98-year-old wanted for Christmas was some cards. His wish came true when he received 110 cards from the first-graders of Summerville Elementary in Summerville, Ga.

“Then he wanted to do something nice for us,” said Laura Gamble, 52, a first-grade teacher who was on the receiving end of the mass email. “I suggested he write us a story and tell us about his life. Then the children wanted to tell him things about their lives. Then they made him Valentine’s Day cards. Then he decided that he wanted to make all these children airplanes. He folded 120 airplanes!”

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Image: First-graders with their handwritten letters
Courtesy of Laura Gamble
First-graders play outside with the paper airplanes 98-year-old Robert Ford made for them.

Ford continues to send the kids stories from his childhood, and Gamble reads them aloud in class at story time. When Ford was little, his family didn’t have a refrigerator; instead, the ice man came. He didn’t watch TV or play video games; instead, he played the game Red Rover outdoors.

Gamble said the friendship between the children and a man more than 90 years their age is giving them perspective on how technology has changed life today. The first-graders also are learning vocabulary and history firsthand — as well as respect for the elderly. One girl wrote to Ford, “I’m glad you’re still alive.”

The ‘Glitter Man’ in Afghanistan
A third-grade class from North Rock Creek Elementary in Shawnee, Okla., wanted to make their cards for Sgt. Jeremy Flowers, an American soldier in Afghanistan, extra special.

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“My kids love glitter … [so] the cards would be full of glitter,” their teacher, Debbie Wilsie, 55, told TODAY.com. “Jeremy would leave on patrol and the glitter would get everywhere on his pants. His friends over there would call him the Glitter Man. And he just said it made him stop and think there is life outside of this war.”

That’s what Wilsie had hoped when she first had her class surprise Flowers with letters last August. Flowers is Wilsie’s good friend’s son-in-law, and he’s provided Wilsie with an opportunity to teach her class how to write a friendly letter. She pointed out that unlike in a text message, you can’t just write the letter “u.”

Image: Sgt. Jeremy Flowers visits Debbie Wilsie's third-grade class
Courtesy of Debbie Wilsie
Sgt. Jeremy Flowers was so touched by the letters and care packages he received from third-graders while he was stationed in Afghanistan that he surprised his pen pals with an in-person visit.

The class wrote to Flowers twice a month, telling about a grandma’s pumpkin pie, their long Christmas lists and what actually turned up under their trees. They also asked whether Flowers gets to eat pizza. “Those real important questions,” Wilsie said, laughing.

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Flowers responded by email, thanking the class for all the letters, sunscreen and M&M’s they sent him — and then he also thanked them by making a surprise visit to their school during his leave in November.

Wilsie said her students told her that they thought about Flowers while saluting the flag in the morning, asked whether he was safe when the local news reported deaths in his infantry division, the 45th, and prayed for him. One boy even took a picture of Flowers from the classroom to put under his pillow. When Flowers returned in March at the end of his deployment, the class welcomed their pen pal with a banner, drawings, cheers and hugs. “They felt like he was part of our class this year,” Wilsie said.

Cherokee children find each other
The second-graders at New Kituwah Academy in Cherokee, N.C. — which teaches entirely in the rare Cherokee language — regularly use MacBooks and iPads in their studies. But when they were asked to iChat with students at their sister school in Oklahoma, they suddenly became shy.

“It helped us to back off the technology,” said their teacher, Rainy Brake, 27. “We realized the kids didn’t know each other.”

So, the students began sending each other handwritten letters instead.

Image: Cherokee children outside their local post office
Courtesy of Rainy Brake
The second-graders at New Kituwah Academy in North Carolina have enthusiastically maintained contact with fellow Cherokee Indians at their sister school in Oklahoma.

“It’s amazing to see letters flying back and forth in Cherokee and being written and read by children,” Brake said.

The first snail mail package included friendship bracelets; one boy urged the class to make them because “they’re our friends.” The children received necklaces in return.

On “Forest Friday,” the second-graders collected sticks and moths — and one girl schlepped an 8-pound rock in her backpack. Everything received labels in Cherokee and got mailed, along with letters about their findings, to their friends.

“It’s helping with their handwriting,” Brake said about the correspondence. “It’s meaningful. They learn better if they have something to do that has a meaning.”

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Brake noted that the friendship allows the students to connect with other kids like themselves. School officials hope to launch a pen-pal program around the world with other communities that speak rare languages. “We want the kids to see that Cherokee isn’t the only language fighting for survival,” Brake said. “We want the kids to have that experience and know there are other unique sets of people in the world doing something productive.”

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