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Catherine Palmer is an extraordinary individual for whom teaching is truly a calling and not just a career. She cares deeply about her students and their future, not just academically but as people. This much is evident from the first time you talk to her.
Catherine first contacted me to discuss the possibility of having the residents of the long term care center where I work become her students' pen pals last year. She wanted to give her students a real world reason to work on their reading and writing. She wanted to show them, as early as third grade, the application of what they were learning. I eagerly agreed to such a project. Many residents, for one reason or another, do not have family members, let alone grandchildren, with whom they have regular contact.
The "pen pal project" as we call it at Westside Community Nursing Center has become about so much more than simply a few letters exchanged between an older person and a younger person. It has become about personal connections. It has become about sharing traditions, memories, and dreams.
It has become about engaging in a wider community. For the entirety of the last half of the 2012-2013 school year, my residents knew that Catherine came on Saturday afternoons, and they looked forward to it. The couple times she was unable to make it, they were very disappointed. I know of no other teachers that would have volunteered two hours every Saturday to make this project successful.
Some weeks we read letters the children had written and wrote letters back. Other weeks we watched video presentations on research projects the children had prepared for us. There have even been times Catherine brought recipes gleaned from her students diverse family backgrounds and made them for us to try. Toward the end of the school year, we made good luck charm pendants to give to the children to wish them luck on their end of the year tests. These became cherished possessions, and my residents felt so good that they had been able to be of service. The last week of school when her class had finished their tests, the students walked to our facility to roast marshmallows and meet their pen pals in person. My residents to this day, cherish the photos from that party, along with the letters and artwork that their pen pals sent them.
Catherine and I are already in discussions about a pen pal project this year, and my residents cannot wait. They have been asking me since the end of June when they will get their new pen pals, and I have had to remind them that school hasn't even started yet. Well, now that September is here, that excuse doesn't fly anymore, and they are anxiously awaiting a new class of children to love.
The therapeutic benefits for my residents have been huge. I have some residents who do not normally engage in other groups who look forward to the pen pal project. It has brought the shy ones out of their shells, and shown them that they can trust and connect with other people. It has shown the lonely and withdrawn that they can make friends in the most unexpected places if they will give it a chance. It has given all of them contact with the enthusiasm and promise of young people. That hope is contagious, and something many of my residents badly need to catch.
Catherine's students met the original goal of using reading and writing skills in the real world. They also had a non-threatening audience with which to practice important research, presentation, and public speaking skills. Catherine also reported that participation in the project was a valuable motivator for her students to finish their homework, attend school, and behave appropriately. These most basic stepping stones to academic and later life success were previously huge struggles for her students.
Perhaps most profound, Catherine showed her students the value of stepping outside of themselves, of connecting to other people rather than simply worrying about their own troubles. Many of her students come from unstable families, and have very few adults they feel they can trust. Catherine showed them that there are other adults who can be trusted, who care, and who will give them safe space in which to learn and grow. The amazing things that can be accomplished for both groups, so many years apart in age, are undeniable evidence of what can be accomplished by creative and dedicated teachers like Catherine Palmer.
--Lindsey A. Tripp, TRT
Westside Community Nursing Center