More than 900 elementary school students wore huge smiles last Friday as many of their college pen pals greeted them in person for the first time.
The students came together for the 13th annual K-grams Kids Fair housed in the Intramural Building and the Cliff Keen Arena, which was divided into four zones representing the board games Candyland, Legos & K’nex, Operation and Classics. Within these areas, kids from 11 elementary schools in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit joined their University pen pals in playing games and doing various interactive and educational activities.
LSA senior Adam Manning, executive director of K-grams, described the fair as the culminating event for everyone involved in the organization, which seeks to connect students from the University and local elementary schools through programs like Pen Pals and BookMARK, a mentoring and reading program.
Members of more than 60 student groups also came to the event to entertain the kids and host activities for the fair. Activities varied from an interactive Jeopardy-inspired game with health and nutritional facts to an “Instrument Petting Zoo,” which was created by the Michigan Marching Band to give kids an opportunity to play different musical instruments.
Engineering junior Paul Darnell and LSA and Art & Design sophomore Ian Matchett, members of the student organization College Socialists, set up an art station with stencils for the kids to paint with.
“They were really engaged, and actually, we had to keep telling them to not to paint in the lines,” Darnell said.
Matchett said the fair was a chance for other student organizations on campus to get involved and interact with the kids — something many groups don’t have the opportunity to do.
“It’s like giving back to a community that we should be a part of,” Matchett said.
Ellen Gorbaty, a teacher from Holmes Elementary School in Ypsilanti, said the games and crafts created a perfect interactive environment for the kids.
“Our kids don’t get to do this. If they’re not in school, they’re attached to a video game or an Xbox or any electronic stuff,” Gorbaty said.
For LSA senior Liz Bronson, who collects letters from the residence halls and delivers them to elementary schools as one of the K-Grams Hall Heads, one of the most meaningful aspects of the K-grams Pen Pals program and the Kids Fair is the exposure to college life the elementary students get by writing and talking to their pen pals and being on campus.
“I think it’s really great because it gives the elementary school kids a real taste of what college is like and they get to come to the campus and they get so excited to actually see college kids,” Bronson said. “They saw a football player outside, and it was like a celebrity sighting.”
Gorbaty’s class was chosen this year to be the K-day class out of all the participating schools. Her students had an opportunity to spend a day on campus and experience the University’s campus life by sitting in on a chemistry class, eating a meal in the residence halls and exploring the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Gorbaty, who has been involved with K-grams for eight years, said all the programs and the Kids Fair have been beneficial experiences for her students.
“All of the activities that they do are just building bridges and building avenues for our kids,” she said.
LSA freshman Claire Talbert said she enjoyed spending time with her pen pal, who she met for the first time at Friday’s event.
“It was just nice to see her in person and to actually get to talk to her and not have to wait until another letter came,” she said.
Talbert described the letter exchange with her pen pal as a fun way to connect with an elementary school student.
“It’s a really nice way to talk to younger students and tell them about things that they can do at school and get them excited about things that you like —like finding someone who’s as interested in reading books as you are or learning about riding horses,” she said.
Gorbaty said she was excited to see the first encounters between the pen pals.
“I don’t know who smiled more — my pen pal kids or the college students. They were equally excited,” she said.