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COVID-inspired Twin Cities pen pals, 7 and 73, bond over letters and love of art

Letter writing might be a lost art in the age of e-mail and instant messaging.

But a 7-year-old budding artist from St. Paul has discovered the skill and found a friend in the process.

Since March, Addie Fenster has been corresponding with a resident of a Minneapolis senior apartment building through a pen pal program.

"There is something special about writing a letter," said Laudan Fenster, Addie's mother. "It is more personal."

Fenster said her daughter writes a letter every week.

"We mail it and then we have to wait for the response. It creates a lot of anticipation," Fenster said. "Then there is excitement when she gets the response." The whole family, including her husband Curtis and 5-year-old son Arlo gathers to read it.

Addie's pen pal is Gary Melquist, a 73-year-old who lives at Cassia Augustana Apartments.

"When Addie wrote her first letter," said Fenster, "we didn't know who she'd get matched up with. I didn't think they'd put thought into that, that it would just be 'Who wants this?' We were very surprised. Gary and Addie have so much in common."

Melquist, also an artist, draws pictures for Addie and they have exchanged gifts.

That wasn't a coincidence, said Gretchen Fulmer, Augustana's activities director.

"We were pretty confident they were a good match," said Fulmer. "We screened all of the letters."

Fulmer and Sarah Karber, Augustana's chaplain, started the program in March to help residents deal with isolation when they couldn't have visitors due to COVID-19 concerns. They reached out to their connections on social media; Karber networked with teachers as well.

The goal was "to help our residents," Fulmer said, "but we were reaching out to students who were being home-schooled and wanted to do good."

In her first letter, Addie included a picture she had drawn.

Melquist, who has lived at Augustana Apartments for 18 years, said corresponding with his pen pal has been "rewarding. [Addie] does a great job," he said.

"I wait for her letters and look forward to getting them."

Fenster said she had a goal for her daughter at the beginning.

"One of my co-workers saw Gretchen's post and sent me an e-mail when this all started in March," said Fenster. "I had selfish reasons [for having Addie get involved]. She had a tough time this spring after being pulled out of second grade abruptly due to the virus. She didn't get a chance to say goodbye to her friends. And I wanted it to help her with her writing."

Fenster said her daughter has gotten a lot out of the correspondence.

"Gary has been a breath of fresh air," said Fenster. "It's been so positive for her. It's so special for her to have adults in her life. I didn't think he'd be so important."

Fulmer said the program now includes 25 to 30 residents and "pen pals of all ages, from grade-school kids to adults. My mother is a retired teacher in Wisconsin and she's a pen pal."

Fenster said Addie wants to continue as a pen pal with Melquist.

"As long as he's open to receiving the letters," said Fenster, "she's open to writing them."



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