Nearly 1,000 elementary students gather in Ann Arbor to meet their U-M pen pals
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Elizabeth Conatser, fifth-grader at Erickson Elementary School in Ypsilanti, said she is really excited about furthering her education by going to college - even if it’s seven years down the road.
Her pen pal, Lindsey Graham, freshman at the University of Michigan, encouraged Elizabeth’s excitement through letters the pair have been sending back and forth since September.
Elizabeth and Graham were one of almost 1,000 pen pal duos of U-M and elementary school students who filtered in the Cliff Keen Arena and Intramural Sports Building for U-M’s 14th annual "K-grams Kids Fair" on Friday.
“I always say in my head, ‘Oh my gosh, when’s my letter going to get here?’ It’s really fun,” Elizabeth said, smiling with stickers on her cheeks. “I write to her about my good grades and my swimming.”
Close to 1,000 students from nine elementary schools across three school districts participated in the fair to meet their U-M pen pal and have fun with them through a variety of activities. This year’s theme was “K-grams in Neverland,” and included Peter Pan-inspired activity zones.
The fair marks the end of this year's pen pal program, in which U-M students become pen pals with kids and visit their classrooms to assist in educational basics and help convey what it’s like to go to college.
“Having a pen pal when I was a kid was one of my favorite things,” Graham said, yelling over cheering, laughter and students chanting “Erickson.”
“It’s just been really fun. I got to meet Elizabeth in person for the first time today. I know what you look like now! I can put a face to a name.”
Erica Timinski, U-M senior and an organizer of K-grams, said the fair is the largest student-organized event at U-M and had more than 70 student groups involved. Among group volunteers, elementary and U-M students, Timinski said more than 2,000 people participated this year.
“It helps show children college life and why it’s important,” Timinski said, dressed as Peter Pan. “They think we’re so much older and they love hearing about everything we do.
"It gives them the chance to see how much of an affect your 10 minutes of writing can have on your pen pal. Seeing so many people involved - it’s just great.”
The K-grams name is short for Kids’ Programs. The organization is partnered with the U-M’s University Housing office and also receives funding from the Michigan Student Assembly and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.
Students from Erickson in the Ypsilanti Public Schools, , along with Dixon Elementary from Detroit Public Schools, joined with classes with seven elementaries from Ann Arbor Public Schools.
They participated in four Neverland-themed fair “zones:” Jolly Roger; Mermaid Lagoon; Lost Boy’s Forest; London.
Student groups throughout the Cliff Keen Arena and Intramural Sports Building set up more than 70 activity stations. Seniors Allie Genia and Stephanie Fortino, U-M Marching Band members, sat at a table adorned with instruments for the kids to try out.
“It’s been really, really exciting,” Genia said. “We have trumpets, a trombone, a piccolo, a marching band hat for them to try on . . . It’s great fun.”
Fortino added: “We’ve had fifth-graders come up who just started to play instruments and they’re so excited to use ours. It helps get the kids aware of music.”
Eberwhite Elementary School fourth-grader Jimmy Francois said he enjoys having a pen pal and will be sad when they send out their last letter soon.
“You get to write to people you don’t really know,” he said. “I got to meet Sarah and she is a great pen pal. I get to tell her about running in track and stuff.”
Jimmy’s pen pal, U-M senior Sarah Short, said she thinks the letters help to encourage reading and writing in kids and helps express their creativity using words.
“His personality always really came through,” Short said. “He’s a great kid.”