Irmo, SC (WLTX)- Chapin Elementary School first grader McEwen Gore holds one side of her face with her hand, pondering before deciding what to write to her pen pal Bob. "Happy April," she starts. Across from her, classmates McKynzie Foxworth and Ryan Stanberry have decided on their topics too. "You are my friend," McKynzie writes. Ryan chooses a sports theme, writing about baseball and adding illustration.
The pencil-scribed notes of these first graders and others in their class are part of a project with Lexington Medical Center called "Letters to Cancer Patients." Created by Chapin first grade teacher Samantha Werts as a real-world writing exercise, the letters are exchanged around once a month. This is the second year that Werts has had a class participate in the project. Lexington Medical Center will publish an article about the project in its upcoming July magazine.
"I wanted it to be real to them," Werts said. "My husband works with cancer patients at the hospital, too. We talked one night and decided that this project was something that could help to strengthen my students' writing skills and help cancer patients feel a little better at the same time."
Considered a novelty in the lives of today's tech-savvy students, handwritten letters help students just learning to read and write "sound out" the words and learn from their errors, Werts added. The letters can be teaching tools for cancer patients as well - lessons on hope and positivity, says Lisa Phillips with Lexington Oncology, a hospital physician practice.
"As a cancer survivor myself, I remember how special it made me feel when others extended acts of kindness towards me and my family," Phillips said. "Our patients feel the same way. The letters are a ray of sunshine ... received with smiles and occasionally happy tears."
It also helps to pass the time as many patients read and respond to their letters during their visits. "I am always so touched by the effort some of our patients put into their reply - a letter written with each line in a different color, a letter decorated with stickers ... and many written on note cards or pretty stationary. Handwritten notes have become a rarity but I believe that each recipient, students and patients, will agree that they are a treasure."
Some students are well-aware that their "pen pal" has cancer, and some empathize with the seriousness of the disease. By a show of hands at the beginning of the project, students were asked if they had family members with cancer or knew someone with it. "A number of them raised their hands," Werts said.
Ryan was one of them. Two close relatives have suffered with the disease, so he says he knows that it "makes people sick."
"I'm writing letters because I want my friend to feel better," said Ryan, who often uses the salutation "Dear Friend."