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Pen pal scheme is the write stuff at care home

A 93-year-old former Rhondda teacher who lives in a Barry care home has inspired a heart-warming pen pal scheme involving residents and pupils of a nearby school.

The postman arriving at Springbank Care Home on College Road causes a ripple of excitement as they eagerly await the latest batch of letters from youngsters at Jenner Park Primary School.

He arrives soon after morning ‘meds’ and one of the first in the queue is nonagenarian Margaret Thomas, who spent her career working as an infants’ school teacher.

Mother-of-two Mrs Thomas, who has dementia, was one of the first to put pen to paper when the home introduced a letter exchange scheme as part of its wellbeing programme.

The project at Springbank has earned warm praise from Care Forum Wales which represents hundreds of independent social care providers.

Chair Mario Kreft MBE said: “This is an utterly brilliant idea and it’s helping to bring joy and friendship to two generations at very different ends of the age spectrum.

“Care homes are the cornerstones of communities across Wales and intergenerational projects like this are perfect at bringing young and old together in a spirit of friendship and understanding.”

Springbank is on the site of the former Barry teacher training college where Mrs Thomas studied from 1942-45 before taking up a post at a Birmingham school where she had 60 infants in her class.

Rhondda Valley born and bred, she returned home to marry Mal and teach at her local school in Ferndale for many years before becoming headmistress at Ynyshir where she remained to her retirement in 1985.

Her daughter Rhian Thomas, from Barry, said: “Mam had a wonderful career in teaching and still talks about her days training in Barry when the student teachers would run into the kitchen to make sandwiches. First there had jam, the others had make do with Marmite!

“Sadly she suffered a stroke in 2012 and was diagnosed with dementia last year. But she remembers a lot about the past and helping children to write their first words.

“When the letter exchange was started she was first to have one in the post. She wrote to a little boy telling him she been a teacher a ‘very long time ago’ and encouraged him to keep on writing.

“Her eye sight isn’t the best anymore and she misses doing her crochet work. You can tell the letter exchange has given her a new lease of life. She looks forward to what the children have to say.”

Rhian, 59, a project leader with Glamorgan Voluntary Services, added: “Back in Mam’s day, children used chalk and slate in school and their handwriting was tested. It’s wonderful to see the home and school encourage the craft of writing. It definitely gets Mam’s seal of approval.”

A group of 10 residents are now involved in penning letters to children in Years 3 and 4. In their last correspondence they asked pupils about their favourite things.

The replies came with brightly-coloured pictures of houses, food, toys and pets.

Thomas, aged seven, described how he was pretty easy to please. “I like everything I do, see and eat!” The response came with a picture him enjoying his favourite activity – sitting in a deck chair at Barry Island.

Now there is a steady flow of letters between the school which is 15 minutes’ walk away from the home on Hannah Street. They are laminated and displayed in the tea room.

The home has 65 residents receiving nursing care and hopes to extend the scheme to more in the New Year.

Springbank operations manager Alex Kelleher said: “We are keen to introduce projects and activities that are inter-generational and connect the old with the young.

“Many of our residents have dementia and it is hard to know ‘where’ they are in their minds but we can see how happy they are when the school choir visits. They love meeting the children and joining in with their songs.

“We wanted to develop this community connection further and had the idea of writing letters to children at Jenner Park Primary.

“Margaret was keen to be involved. She loves talking to people but is sometimes a little troubled and confused. The letters do seem to bring joy and fulfilment not only to Margaret, but all involved. They certainly put a smile on faces.”

The pupils aged seven to nine know their pen pals by first name and when the school choir performed a Christmas concert at the home, they were keen to say hello and put a face to the name.

Years 3 and 4 teacher Laura Johnson said: “At first pupils wrote introductory letters, telling residents about themselves. Then they sent Christmas letters and will follow up with more after the holidays.

“It’s not only helping with their literacy skills but also in developing empathy for people in their older years.

“Some residents have quite wobbly handwriting and this has generated discussion about what can happen in old age and how we must care for the aged sector of our community.

“Empathy isn’t a subject in the curriculum but a life-long skill we are delighted to help the children develop.”

Caption: Springbank 6, 7: Pen pals, from left, Springbank Care Home resident Margaret Thomas with young letter writers, from left, Ody Moritis, Kacey James, and Gabriella Beech, all aged eight.

Springbank 9,10,11: The write stuff, from left, Springbank residents and staff, Amanda Peacock, Linda Campbell, Wellbeing Coordinator, Margaret Thomas, Ann Richardson and Bernice Jones with pupils Ody Moritis, William Thompson and Kacey James, all aged eight.