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Pen Pal Program Engages Neighborhood Children by Mike Patterson

Mike Patterson is a freelance writer and member of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Blanco.

Riggins said, “You know, Regina, it’s All Saints’ Day. See if you can use that.”

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Walker thought about Riggins’ suggestion and sat down with the notebook. “God is good,” Walker explained. “He came at the right time to tell me how to respond.”

Photos by Mike Patterson and Leslie Mixson.

n All Saints’ Day last year, Regina Walker, a member of St. Philip’s, San Antonio, opened the thin spiral notebook from her fourth-grade pen pal at nearby S.H. Gates Elementary School and discovered that the light-hearted exchange of letters had taken an unexpectedly somber turn. The letter from her young friend, written on blue-lined paper, contained a sobering passage: “Do you have a dad because I don’t he died in a car crash. We had his funeral.” After she read this, Walker retreated to compose herself in a quiet corner of the church’s parish hall. “My heart broke for such a young person to go through such a tragic event,” Walker said. “I saw this as a light-hearted exercise. Suddenly, it was very serious and thought-provoking.” Seeing her alone, the Rev. Patricia Riggins, priest-in-charge, sensed something was up. Walker showed her the letter and the two huddled over how she should reply. “She is a young girl,” Walker said, “so I had to be sensitive to how I responded.”

St. Philip’s parishioner, Regina Walker, works on a letter to her fourth-grade pen pal.

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She picked up her pencil and wrote: “I am very sorry to hear that your dad died. Today is All Saints’ Day, a day when we give honor and prayers to our loved ones in heaven. I will say a special prayer for you and your family.” “It was a beautiful response,” Riggins said.

Pen Pal Program

The exchange of letters between Walker and her young friend began as a pen pal program last fall between the fourth graders at Gates and the parishioners at St. Philip’s. The school and church are located only about six blocks apart in southeast San Antonio and share a heritage rooted deep in the African-American community. S.H. Gates, a prominent local educator, was the first African-American to have a school named in his honor in San Antonio. St. Philip’s heritage dates to its founding in 1895 as the first Episcopal Church for AfricanAmericans in the Diocese of West Texas. The cooperation between the church and Gates started when Riggins heard about a partnership between San Antonio’s Christ Church and its neighborhood school, Madison Elementary, at a diocesan Abide in Me conference. (See “A Mutual Transformational Relationship,” The Church News, March/April 2015.) Although St. Philip’s is much smaller than Christ Church, she wanted to see if there was some way on a lesser scale that her church could help the children at Gates Elementary.

“Part of the DNA of this church community is to be in a relationship with Gates,” Riggins said. “Several of the kids of our parishioners went to Gates. And we have quite a few teachers in the parish.” Riggins arranged a meeting with Stephanie Webb, the school counselor, to explore ways that the church could help Gates. “I knew we could do something like buy school supplies, but I wanted something different,” Riggins said. Webb said, “You know, what if we could have a little pen pal program with the fourth graders because they are tested in writing for STAAR.” The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness measures fourth graders on reading, writing and math. “I thought that would help with writing by encouraging them to write more,” Webb said. “The kids would also learn things about other people, and those people would be learning things about them.” Riggins presented the idea to the church and “Nobody said no,” she said. The program was launched when the school’s two dozen fourth graders decorated the cover of their spiral notebooks and wrote a letter introducing themselves to their future pen pals at St. Philip’s. Riggins picked up the notebooks from the school, took them to church, and “just started passing them out at coffee hour to anybody who wanted to participate.” They were quickly snatched up, even by St. Philip’s own 6th, 7th and 8th graders. “Everything is on phones these days,” she said, “Our young people have never had a pen pal before.” Generally, it takes about two to three weeks to turn the letters around between the church and school. The parishioner and student remain paired as pen pals throughout the year.

July/August 2016 Church News  

The July/August 2016 issue of the Church News, the official newspaper of the Diocese of West Texas. This issue includes the annual World Mis...

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