Students in Knockanean National School’s second and third class visited St Joseph’s Hospital on Monday to finally come face-to-face with residents they had been corresponding with over the last few months.
From April to June this year, as part of the Artist in Schools Scheme, local artist Rachel Macmanus with the co-operation of second class teacher Ciara Felle, third class teacher Tina Gavin, as well as Caitriona Crotty, the Activities Co-Ordinator for St Joseph’s, pupils had written letters to their ‘pen pals’ in St Joseph’s.
The project was overseen via Zoom due to pandemic restrictions, with Rachel and the teachers helping the students write letters to St Joseph’s residents; on the other side, Caitriona Crotty read out the letters at the hospital and assisted the residents in replying to them.
The scheme concluded on Monday when the two classes came to the hospital to show the murals that they had painted for their pen pals, featuring all the things they learned about their counterparts during the process.
“It went super, really well,” Rachel explained. “Two stations were prepared to keep the two classes away from each other for safety, and a much bigger number of the residents were able to attend than we expected.
“We stayed out in the pavilion in the garden and the children showed their murals from a safe distance.”
The murals were crafted from separate drawings and paintings by the children individually at home, stuck together after the fact in order to make the process as safe as possible. Rachel admitted that the pandemic made the entire project far more difficult and delayed it considerably.
She says that she was inspired originally to start this inter-generational exchange by the huge amount of material arriving to St Joseph’s at Christmas, such as cards and letters, and going unanswered.
“Each student was assigned to a resident to communicate both ways. The kids asked their questions and when they actually got responses it was amazing for them,” Rachel continued. “That’s when it came alive for them.”
Rachel went on to say that the children found a lot of commonalities with the residents, even those in their eighties and nineties; in their first few letters the pen pals discussed their childhoods and how different they were, only to find that in later letters they shared a lot of the same feelings during the lockdown.
She said residents were stoic about their experience of the pandemic, while the children were sharing things with their pen pals that even the teachers did not know; both sides of the exchange were incredibly open and honest in their replies.
During the visit, the children came with friendship bracelets for their older counterparts, as well as placards with their names so that the residents could identify their pen pals, whom they had never met, from a safe distance.
Rachel attributes the success of the visit to the excellent staff who created such a calm and inviting atmosphere through their rapport with esidents.
“Everything in the residents’ lives is organised and routine, in a good way. But this was a whole different energy, a less regimented type of communication.
“It was very personal for them, and it gave us some lovely stories,” she said.
by Conor Clohessy