BRAINARD — Think letter-writing is a lost art?
Madison Klement, Bentley Janak and their fellow classmates would beg to differ.
Case in point: Madison’s colorful cake adorned with flowers, the last-minute addition of a bright yellow sun peeking out of the corner of the Crayola-inspired card intended to bring a little cheer to Marie, who’s turning 80.
And there’s Duane, who will spend a portion of his 90th birthday celebration pondering the answers to a number of questions posed by Bentley, written in the large square print of a first-grader.
Marie and Duane — and hundreds of other folks who have appeared in the Journal Star’s Celebrate section or in the Wahoo, David City or Schuyler newspapers over the past six years — are recipients of the kindness of strangers.
These are strangers of the first-grade variety, the sort just learning about punctuation and spelling and sentence structure in Jodi Chapek’s classroom in East Butler Elementary.
Chapek has been teaching first-graders at the Brainard school for seven years, and for six of those she's helped her students learn writing skills spelled out in state standards by communicating via the U.S. Post Office.
Students learn how to begin a letter with a greeting, how to seek information and offer kind greetings. They learn how to address an envelope, know the stamp goes in the right-hand corner.
Chapek isn’t sure how she got the idea, but she looks for authentic reasons for kids to write. They write in journals, but writing something that someone else will read is different.
“When the kids have a person to write to, it means a lot more,” she said. “It’s a challenge for first-graders. They take pride in what they send out.”
She scours newspapers for people celebrating with card showers — they’re harder to find than they used to be — and prints their pictures, along with their names, what event they’re celebrating and their address.
Her students write a letter each month, a task she estimates has resulted in more than 700 letters over the past six years. Many recipients are older — celebrating their 70th, 80th or 90th birthdays — or golden anniversaries.
Last month, Evelyn Donaldson celebrated her 100th birthday, so Chapek’s class went all out. Each wrote her a letter, and they came up with ideas of things she could do on her birthday.
Go camping. Eat 100 pieces of cake. Get 100 spankings. Eat 100 Oreos. Invite over 100 friends.
They compiled all the ideas and letters, included a photo and mailed it to her.
Her daughter, a retired teacher, wrote a thank you dictated by her mom. It's neatly printed and double-spaced — perfect reading for a first-grade class.
Ellie Piitz is in second grade now, but remains pen pals with the retired Saunders County Highway worker from Wahoo she wrote last year. With the help of her parents, they’ve exchanged letters her mom is keeping for her daughter's scrapbook.
On her birthday last month, the avid coin collector sent his pen pal two coins from his collection.
“Ellie, I’ve been a coin collector since I was 10 years old,” he wrote. “I thought a nice girl like you should have a couple of real nice dimes for her B.D.”
Kim Piitz, Ellie's mom, said she likes the idea of brightening someone's day and so she urged her daughter to continue the correspondence.
"We're caring people. People like to get cards and letters in the mail," she said. "This is old world way -- before texting and Snapchat -- this is the way people used to communicate."
The kids in Chapek’s class have learned that they’re more apt to get a response when they ask questions, so many of the letters are peppered with them.
Did you have a good birthday? What’s your favorite color? Do you have a pet? Do you have a pool? Did you have cake for your birthday?
Once, a woman sent the class $50 and told them to have a pizza party. Chapek instead divided up the money among the students, and took them to the Dollar Store, where they bought gifts for a Christmas event for families in need.
Kids love hearing back from those they write, but if they don't it doesn't matter, Chapek said, because there's a lesson about kindness and doing things for others without expecting something in return.
Having the freedom and flexibility to start a letter-writing tradition or take an impromptu field trip to the Dollar Store is one of the things she likes about working in a small, rural school, Chapek said.
The school’s foundation gave her a small grant to pay for stamps, so every month, the students seal up their letters, and walk the block from their school, past the grain elevator to the stone and frame building with the flag outside.
And each week they line up and drop their letters in the mail slot, one by one.
Postal worker Denise Robeson makes sure the letters are addressed correctly and sends them on their way.
"I think it's awesome that they mail the letters," she said. "I'm sure it's a bright light in (someone's) cloudy day sometimes."