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Extension, 4-H groups develop pen-pal programs
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Carson Montgomery, a member of Next Generation 4-H Club, places a letter in the mailbox to his pen-pal in Montello.

MONROE — The University of Wisconsin Extension Green County wants to reassure the public that despite “Safer at Home” restrictions, it’s organizing its programs to reach the biggest audience possible. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted restrictions put in place by Gov. Tony Evers to limit gathering sizes. This is a problem for 4-H clubs, which often spend summers at club meetings, campouts, contests and fairs. 

4-H Youth Development Educator for Green County Extension Ellen Andrews said the extension is working to find offerings to families who are looking for more engagement, but are already active with other things.

“We’re really trying to balance what families need right now,” Andrews said, noting that some are currently overwhelmed, but others are looking for more. “We want to be respectful of where families are at.”

One way they’re doing that is with an optional pen-pal program. There are currently two programs that involve two separate age groups. One is for third through sixth graders and another newly formed group allows kindergarten through second graders to get involved. 

“This is a new experience for us, but building connections between kids is what we do,” Andrews said. “It’s nice to see it continue in a new format.”

Early on, the third through sixth grade group started knowing that some children at home had questionable internet access, and this offered an opportunity for connection that didn’t require a screen. There are about 20 participants in Green County and the same amount in Columbia County. 

“We knew that developing connections and a sense of community was going to be more important than ever (right now),” Andrews said. 

Not only has it provided that, but it has offered some basic life skills that many children have never done, like addressing an envelope. 

Because the program was put together so quickly, members were matched by age to keep the abilities and interests similar. The feedback from parents has been overwhelmingly positive, Andrews said. 

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Mickaelynn Andrews, member of Washington Center 4-H Club, holds a letter she is exchanging with her pen-pal from Cambria.

Jody Moen, who has two daughters in third and fifth grade participating in the program, sees the benefits.

“They are really enjoying the experience,” Moen said. “I think they’ve benefited from this project by perfecting their letter writing skills, becoming more thoughtful and considerate of others’ situations, and generally by just making a new friend from the experience.”

Corrin McMannes said her daughter, Brigid, has found a new friendship and has experienced the joy that sometimes comes with getting something in the mail.  

“She runs to the mailbox almost every day,” she said. “(Brigid) writes about once a week depending on how much homework she has to do, and I’d say she receives a letter just as frequently. I think Brigid found her first, unrelated, long-distance friendship and she’s thrilled about it.”

The younger program that just started is for the Cloverbud 4-H level. Because they are all from Green County — Andrews said it makes it special that they’ll likely meet their pen-pal in person at some point if they stick with 4-H. 

The younger members pen-pal exchange will take a natural evolution as far as how much is written, if parents are involved or maybe even pictures instead of letters for some. Andrews said participants were provided with resources that offered sample questions and instructions on how to format a letter. 

Christina Johnson, Monroe, heads up the Green County Cloverbud Committee and was part of bringing in the younger group to the pen-pal program. She hopes it will help increase friendships and even encourage members to continue it after the program ends. 

“Everything about 4-H is learning,” Johnson said. “This will be a great learning experience.”

Andrews said the extension office is still providing several other educational programs, such as an online format that includes workshops on topics like photography. The Extension is “ramping up” its website, Andrews said, to make educational resources accessible when it fits into the schedules of others. 

The summer camp, typically held in August for 4-Hers, was canceled due to the facility closing. Members are now crossing their fingers that they can still participate in other events such as the county fairs — where they play a major role.

It’s difficult to think about what the summer may bring for area chapters. 

“We’re trying to be hopeful at this time,” Andrews said.

Andrews said the Extension is looking to local alternatives for some of the things it typically does even though that would look a little different with smaller groups.