"We were thrilled and grateful to receive such beautiful handmade gifts from Kenya," the project's founder Linda Ercole-Musso. The pen pal project links students at Galveston's Ambassadors Preparatory Academy and St. Philips School Mathare in Nairobi, Kenya.
The first round of pen pal letters left Nairobi in May of 2011 and were answered the following October by students at Ambassadors. Since then two more rounds of letters have been exchanged. The most popular topics: sports, food, hobbies and African wildlife.
The U.S. kids are fascinated by Africa's big game animals, especially lions and elephants. "They are also interested in similarities and differences in the culture, language, music and school setting of their pen pals at St. Phillips," said Ambassadors' administrator, Pat Williams.
"An additional benefit is it encourages students to think about a range of topics by integrating information about things like geography, science and environment."
The initiative is sponsored by African Children's Haven, a Galveston nonprofit that supports education, health and nutrition projects for African orphans and at-risk children.
The Kenyan students sent the first set of gifts in August. All were produced as part of a project aimed at training Kenyan children to recycle ordinary objects into useful products, said Wilson Andenyi. Included were stuffed animals, costume jewelry and small toys. Andenyi is the Director and Head Teacher of St. Philip's School Mathare.
The school, established by parents concerned about the education of their children, is in the second largest slum in East Africa. The teachers earn an average of $50 month but, until recently, even that small amount was frequently beyond the reach of the school's finances. African Children's Haven now provides more than half of the school's teaching budget and invests in efforts to improve teachers' professional skills.
"The pen pal project has helped to boost student creativity and greatly improved writing skills," Andenyi added. "It's simple, cheap and really popular with the children."
It's also popular with teachers.
Both Williams and Andenyi say the project has improved writing skills and contributed to the children's understanding of other countries. "Drafting pen pal letters has stimulated an interest in writing and has promoted creative practices for teaching and learning," Williams said.
"The letters are really charming and really inspiring," Ercole-Musso added. "The children basically own the project. The students take it upon themselves to learn about their pen pal partners and how they live."
For example, the children at Ambassadors were fascinated to find out that when it's winter in Galveston its summer in Kenya. One student used the school's computer to translate her letter into Swahili, a local language widely used in East Africa. St. Philips students are taught in both English and Swahili.
Andenyi believes that the project has also taught his students about life in the U.S. "Our children are really interested to learn more about America. The pen pal program makes that possible," he said.
The next set of pen pal letters is scheduled to reach Kenya in December and arrive in time for the holidays along with gifts for the children at St. Philips.