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Groton — Paul Starling doesn't talk very much, but Tama Tuinei, 10, knows a lot about him. He knows Starling was a history teacher, that he likes music and that he once had a dog.
"We ask him 'yes' or 'no' questions, and he nods in reply," Tama said. On Wednesday, the Mary Morrisson Elementary School fifth-grader arrived at Fairview Odd Fellows Home of Connecticut with dozens of his classmates to read and make crafts with the seniors they've come to know since March by reading to them or by becoming their pen pal.
Starling could not say his age, but gave his young friend a fist pump in the air when he walked in.
The program has brought together two generations and has excited its senior participants who have saved the children's crafts and letters, placing them in neat folders, hanging them on their walls or keeping them on their bedside tables. The pen pals met for the first time Wednesday.
"We've been dying to meet each other and today's the day," said Elizabeth Michon, 80. She has three children nearby who visit but she has no grandchildren, so she enjoyed the pen pal relationship she built with Erika Bolden, 11.
Erika wrote that she sings and plays piano; Michon wrote back that she crochets and reads.
"She's a very great drawer, better than me," Erika said, as she showed Michon how to make a butterfly out of a coffee filter, markers, a clothespin and a pipe cleaner.
"I still plan to write to her over the summer, too. And visit her when I'm free," Erika said.
The program, a joint effort by the town's schools and the Groton Public Library, sent a librarian to Mary Morrisson once a month for "Book Buddies," a program that taught the fifth-grade class how to read with expression and fluency to a senior, and how to make a craft. Then the school brought the children to Fairview to read their books and teach a craft.
A second fifth-grade class started the Senior Pen Pal program and began writing letters, which were delivered back and forth during visits by the other class.
"There are residents in here today that don't come out of their rooms, and they came out here just to do this program, just to meet their pen pals," said Sarah Stanley, therapeutic recreation director at Fairview. "It adds immensely to their lives."
The group shared ice cream at the end of the craft, and the children also met Morgan, an 8-year-old golden retriever and trained therapy dog who visits Fairview on Wednesdays.
Next year, the school will continue the program and add technological elements so seniors can learn to send email and pictures back and forth, Principal Monica Franzone said.
Claudia Clark, 81, has kept everything that Tristin Cleetus, 11, and the other children have made her. She keeps it all where she can see it. Clark said she'd been impressed by the pictures her pen pal draws, especially the eyes on people's faces.
"I'm so excited about this. It's been so much fun," Clark said, adding of Tristin, "She's beautiful. I should have known that from the eyes she draws."