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Sister cities, pen pals, fast friends

Here in Odessa, Texas, we can only imagine the devastating impact a war in one’s homeland has on a child’s life. A new pen pal program is giving students at Odessa Collegiate Academy (OCA) the opportunity to do just that by connecting them to students in war-torn Odesa, Ukraine. The connections began in December, and now nearly 120 OCA students are sharing their day-to-day experiences, learning together, developing empathy and perhaps slowly building friendships.


To get started with the pen pal program, students in Mikal Crowder’s freshman World Geography class completed an initial information form and were matched with students from Ukraine. Now, although a world apart, they regularly contact their fellow students by mail or email.


“You start having conversations and getting to know each other,” said OCA freshman Ailaine Minzo. “I started messaging asking ‘what was her favorite color? How was she doing?’ Her favorite color is brown and she lives somewhere in the west side. It’s been mostly two high school kids getting to know each other.”


Ailaine’s classmate, Aubrie Aguilar agreed, saying conversations with her pen pal, Emina, have been just like two girls the same age talking to each other. “She always engages in conversations more on the happier side rather than focusing on other things,” said Aubrie.

“I was talking to her about quinceañeras, and she had never heard of one so I sent her a picture of what a dress might look like and a venue,” she said. “She asked a lot about my favorite movies and what I like to do after school. She really likes the Devil Wears Prada. [laughing] I’ve never seen that movie but she really recommends me to watch it.”   


Aubrie and Emina both like volleyball and staying active.


Another OCA 9th grader, London Harbison, and her pen pal, Maria, have also found common interests. “We both enjoy baking, music, things like that,” said London but added, “One thing we don’t have in common is school interests. I’m more like math and she’s more into English and reading and stuff like that.”


“They’re realizing that kids are kids no matter where we live,” said Mr. Crowder. “The kids in the Ukraine have many of the same thoughts, wants, and desires that we do. The kids say their communication has become less formal and more like interacting with a friend.”


Still the specter of the war in Ukraine is always there. Aubrie just experienced it in the interruption of her new friendship. “[Emina] responds normally within a day or two but the past two weeks she didn’t respond, and I got an email from her this morning, actually, and she said schools have been shut down and the blackout caused them to have no internet.”


London has had the same experience with her pen pal, Maria. “She was telling me about the blackout and they didn’t have internet or anything, so she couldn’t respond very fast. She was telling me how she really doesn’t understand how things like this are still happening. It’s crazy to think you would even be in [a war] and that they are going through that.”


Chris Mead, retired senior vice president of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, brought the idea to the Odessa Chamber of Commerce in the fall. He thought it would be a great gift to connect Odessa with Odesa. The project was inspired and assisted by a Ukrainian-born professor of business at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Dr. Vasyl Taras. About 450 students around the U.S. are now participating in this pen pal program, which also includes classroom materials that bring the current events taking place in Ukraine to life for these students.


“The kids over in Ukraine, I feel like they need a life-line, some sort of connection with everything that’s going on in their country,” said Mr. Crowder. “I thought it was a really neat opportunity and when I told the kids about it they were super excited.”


“I’ve learned that we’re pretty lucky to be here,” said Aubrie, summing up the feelings of the OCA students. “and things are pretty different in other places.”