- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Sixth-grade students at Thompkins Middle School have a special connection with their pen pals in Italy.

A Holocaust survivor, Alisa Palmeri of Wellesley, Massachusetts has talked to the students at Thompkins twice through the years at the invitation of the Committee to Promote Respect in Schools (CYPRESS). She told the students about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

Her story starts when her home country of Yugoslavia was invaded by Germans, Palmeri and her family fled to Italy, where a small town took the family in and hid them.

Palmeri later revisited this small town, Amandola, Italy, to thank the residents. There, a teacher approached her about setting up a pen pal program with an American school.

Although she lives outside of Boston, Palmeri immediately thought of Thompkins Middle School in Evansville.

“When my sister and I came to Evansville for the first time five years ago, we were astonished by how well-prepared, thoughtful and truly interested the students were,” Palmeri told the Evansville Courier & Press (https://bit.ly/1kT4t1s ).

“It was only later when I reread some of the letters of appreciation, poems and thank you notes that I began to wonder if the middle-schoolers from Amandola had any awareness of the impact that our story had on those who hear it.”

She said she thought of how wonderful it would be if the children from both schools had the opportunity to learn about one another.

Carol Abrams, the chairwoman of CYPRESS has worked with Palmeri over the years, bringing her to Evansville to speak at various events, and they worked together to set up the pen pal program.

“There are so many layers of education and wonderful things about this for the students,” Abrams said.

She said the Italian students write the letters in English as a way to practice learning the language.

Having the two groups of students correspond with each other is also a way for them to learn about what the town of Amandola did for Palmeri’s family.

“The story of what this little town did, that was so generous and brave and saved this family, perhaps not all the young people know this story, and often people who act very selflessly and do truly heroic things don’t talk about it,” Abrams said. “The (Italians) put themselves and their families at total risk, and if any had been found by the Germans, they would have been killed.”

The experience also gives the students a chance to learn geography, history and how to write a letter while also learning how similar they are to those who may not appear to be at all.

“One of the students was reading a letter from her pen pal and she was excited because they had so much in common, and told her teacher ‘Mrs. Hodge, she is just like me,’ ” Abrams said. “Maybe ‘just like me’ is the most important thing to learn.”

Rebekah Hodge, the teacher of the honors English class and the social studies class, said her students are excited to learn from other children across the world.

“They thought it was very exciting, just writing hard copy letters as a descriptive writing assignment - telling about themselves, and where they live,” Hodge said. “Most of them really love it. They think it’s so cool they have Italian pen pals, and now a lot of them want to go to Italy.”

She said some of the students have even taken the liberty to write to their pen pals outside of the class.

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, https://www.courierpress.com


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