In a world filled with text messaging, email, Twitter and other electronic communication, letter writing and penmanship is becoming a lost art. But, for decade-long pen pals Sophia Smith, 18, of Warrensburg, and Barbara Reyes, 74, of Sedalia, they have created a letter legacy.
The pair began corresponding when Smith was in the third grade at Washington Elementary School through a Sedalia Area Literacy Council program. Through the years, and several moves for Smith, she and Reyes continued to write to each other, often once a month. Many times Smith would mail handmade art gifts and souvenirs to Reyes throughout her school years and during her travels abroad.
“They had the program over at the school for all of us to get pen pals, and learn how to write efficiently, and I got Barbara,” Smith explained about the pen pal program. “I moved away about a year and a half after that, and we just kept on writing.”
“I stayed in the pen pal program for about four more years after that,” Reyes said. “Each year there was another little girl, and each time they wanted to keep writing to me … I wrote to them a couple times but I never heard anything.”
Smith alone remained her faithful pen pal.
Making their bond tighter, while writing to each other 10 years ago, they both made a surprising discovery.
“It wasn’t until after school was over that year that I found she lived down the street from me,” Reyes said.
Smith eventually moved to Kansas City and then to Kansas but kept writing, and she looked forward to receiving Reyes’ four to seven page letters and sometimes 12 to 13 page letters.
“I talk better on paper than I can in person,” Reyes said.
Reyes said Smith wrote to her from Kansas City, from Paola, Kan., and when she attended a boarding school in seventh grade at the Thomas Jefferson School in St. Louis, after receiving an almost full-ride scholarship to the school.
“It was Thomas Jefferson, college prep,” Smith said. “People down the street didn’t know the school was there, but people from Korea would fly halfway around the world to go there.”
Although there was homework and studies for Smith, she never stopped writing.
So why did the two women stay connected through letter writing for 10 years when it may have be easier to email or text a hello to each other?
“Nowadays people get so excited when they actually get a letter in the mail, because you don’t any more,” Smith said. “And so it was just kind of exciting — you had a letter in the mail and you could write back instead of sending a five letter text, you sent five pages.”
Writing letters provides a record of correspondence and can be passed down to future generations to read while instant messages fizzle into cyberspace and are eventually lost. Smith saved her letters from Reyes. Reyes also saved her letters from Smith and stored them in the attic. Unfortunately a family member threw them all away recently, by mistake.
For Smith, writing letters to Reyes also filled a gap.
“Plus, I never really had much contact with my grandparents,” she said. “So she is like my surrogate grandma — it was nice.”
“When I found out she lived down there, I had to come up to get stuff out of her garden, and one day her mother brought me up that basket,” Reyes said pointing to a woven basket sitting nearby. “So her mother brought the basket up with some cucumbers that Sophia raised. This picture here is one thing she gave me too.”
Reyes pointed to a canvas painting titled, “The Secret Garden,” created by Smith in 2006. It has hung on Reyes’ wall since it was given to her eight years ago with the inscription, “To My Pen pal Barbara.”
“Sophia couldn’t believe that was still on the wall,” Reyes said.
She also has a stained glass heart made by Smith in high school and a Russian shawl Smith sent to her from Moscow on a recent trip aboard.
“A lot of the ladies there were wearing them, so I saw one, and Barbara likes red,” noted Smith. “I got her a red one.”
Now a college sophomore at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg majoring in conservation wildlife biology, Smith will leave again Sunday on a 24-hour flight to study abroad for six months at the University of Tasmania, Australia — but this will not be a deterrent for the two long-term pen pals.
“I promised Barbra I would send stuff, maybe a kangaroo, I don’t know,” she said laughing.
“She spells much better now than she did in third grade,” Reyes added.
“She’s the only reason I have a signature that’s better than a third grader’s right now,” Smith added. “All that signing letters.”
Literacy Council President Betty Albrecht said in her years working with the council and the project she’d never heard of any other pen pals who had stayed in touch for so long. She said the relationship the two have built is amazing.
“This really is unique,” she said. “They are to be commended. That was a lot of commitment for a young child to keep.”
Albrecht said the Sedalia Area Literacy Council has managed the pen pal project at Washington Elementary School for more than 15 years and have recently implemented a “meet your pen pal” party at the beginning of the school year and a farewell party at the end of the year. Free books are given to the students at the parties.
For the 2013-14 school year the project had 53 students and 51 adult pen pals, Albrecht said. Teachers involved with the project this year were Devon Gilmore and Patrick Pyle; the pen pal project is chaired by Barbara Freund.