220 Students from UMass Lowell and Local Schools Participate in Pen Pal Program

Pen pal Ben and Ben Image by Courtesy
UML student-athlete Ben Greco, right, meets his pen pal, second-grader Ben Guedes, left, during a trip to the McAuliffe School.

By Brooke Coupal

Ben Greco didn’t realize how impactful puffy stickers could be.
In a letter addressed to second-grader Ben Guedes, the finance and marketing major from Franklin, Massachusetts, adhered multiple puffy stickers to the paper. The letter Greco received in return from Guedes, who attends the S. Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Lowell, warmed his heart.
“He loved the puffy stickers,” says Greco, who learned that Guedes is blind. “His aide had to translate my letter for him, and the stickers were the only thing he could feel. I now try to get as many puffy stickers on my letters as possible.”
Greco is one of 110 student-athletes at UMass Lowell who participate in a pen pal program with public schools in Lowell. The program is in its third year and is overseen by Athletic Academic Coordinator Sima Suon ’17.
Pen pal Abigail Image by Brooke Coupal
Second-grader Abigail Mendonca reads a letter from her pen pal.
“Being able to utilize our student-athletes and their platform for a positive reason is huge,” says Suon, a former javelin thrower on the UMass Lowell women’s track and field team. “I’m a firm believer in making sure that the student-athletes serve the community that they’re reaping benefits from. These young kids are their fans at games and are aspiring to be them one day.”
Throughout the academic year, each student-athlete corresponds with an assigned child via handwritten letters. The student-athletes form a bond with the schoolchildren by asking questions such as “What is your favorite sport?” and “What superpower would you like to have?”
Pen pal Vivian Image by Brooke Coupal
Student-athlete Vivian Mac starts a new pen pal letter.
“It brings out the inner kid in me,” says Greco, a men’s lacrosse player.
The program has become so popular among student-athletes that within two days of seeking pen pal volunteers, Suon had to create a waitlist. Vivian Mac, an exercise science junior and a distance runner on the women’s cross-country and track and field teams, was excited to get a pen pal buddy for the third year in a row.
“It’s a cool program that athletics runs, because it allows us to connect with kids and be a role model for them,” says the Randolph, Massachusetts, native.
McAuliffe School second-grade teacher Tara Bedard ’02 has participated in the pen pal program since its inception and sees how beneficial the program is for her students.
Pen pal Auanny Image by Brooke Coupal

Second-grader Auanny Pinto proudly shows off the beginning of her latest pen pal letter.

“It is so important for students to be a part of something bigger than the walls of their elementary school,” she says. “The program lets them be a part of such an amazing college community right in their city.”
For Barbara Smith, a third-grade teacher at Charlotte M. Murkland Elementary School in Lowell, the program shows her students that college is an achievable goal.
“One of the biggest takeaways that the kids get is that there are people just like them at UMass Lowell,” says Smith, who is also a throwing coach for the university’s track and field team. “Knowing that this university is available to them is huge for our kids.”
In Bedard’s classroom, the excitement is palpable when the letters arrive. When it’s their turn to compose a note to their pen pals, the second graders pepper them with questions about their favorite movies and whether they have pets. 
“It’s so fun to read their letters,” says Joshua Idusuyi, a student in Bedard’s class.
“We get to talk to each other, and it’s like we know each other,” adds Astrid Sargent, who is a classmate of Idusyi and Guedes.
Pen pal Joshua Image by Brooke Coupal
Second-grader Joshua Idusuyi works on his pen pal letter.
On April 22, the schoolchildren will visit UMass Lowell to meet their pen pals in person. Guedes already met his buddy Greco when the UMass Lowell lacrosse team visited the McAuliffe School to read to students. Guedes showed Greco the brailler he uses to write his letters and gifted Greco a book written in braille for him to practice reading.
“We’re going to be friends forever,” Guedes says. “I’m going to be his pen pal for the rest of his life.”