Pen pals meet at New Cassel

New Cassel Retirement Center resident Jacque Zagurski and her pen pal, Audrey Fischer, on Tuesday. Audrey brought gifts.

The third-graders anxiously stared at the doorway and squirmed in their chairs.

“There’s two people. Yay,” one student said when two residents of New Cassel Retirement Center appeared in the doorway.

Teacher Allison Birkemeier watched her students.

“They’ve been waiting for this day for weeks,” she said.

All school year, the students at Harrison Elementary School wrote letters to New Cassel residents. They wrote about their families, school activities and the drama that can fill the lives of 8- and 9-year-olds.

In their replies, the residents answered questions and told the students about their favorite songs and historical events or provided words of encouragement.

On Tuesday, the pen pals met in person for the first time.

Both residents and students had wide smiles as they were introduced at the retirement center.

Jacque Zagurski said she got to know her young pen pal, Audrey Fischer, pretty well. Audrey brought a few gifts that she had made out of felt, including a cat.

“I never thought of doing that,” Zagurski, who sews herself, said while admiring the cat.

Birkemeier came up with the pen pal idea while visiting the retirement center. She said some of her students didn’t know how to write letters and had never received mail before, so there were plenty of learning opportunities.

The students looked forward to writing and receiving the letters.

“They’ll remember this forever,” Birkemeier said.

When they finally met in person, the pen pals read books, played games and took photos together. One resident taught her pen pal how to knit. And two students taught their resident a math game using playing cards.

The students wrote poetry books to give the residents. Others brought slime as gifts.

The teacher hoped her students learned another lesson.

“You don’t need to give gifts,” Birkemeier said. “You need to give time.”

Nebraska Nice in action: More than 5 dozen stories of everyday folks helping each other

Every day, people around Omaha lend a hand to help their neighbor or complete strangers. Take a look at a few examples of Nebraska Nice in action.

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Abbey Dyer, a Girl Scout for 12 years who then was a sophomore at Millard South High School, was searching for a project for a Gold Award — the highest achievement in Girl Scouts. She reached out to Heartland Hope’s volunteer coordinator, Amanda DeVries, asking if she could revamp the play area, free of charge.

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When Tyler Howard arrived in the neighborhood this month to set up the Omaha-based stand, his own kids befriended those living nearby who hung around the pop-up tent, curious. He began to give them tasks in exchange for a few dollars and has since watched them take on the cleanup project with an ambition and excitement of their own.

Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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