Once a month, college students and elementary school students alike patiently check their mailboxes. They’re both looking for one specific iten: a letter from their pen pal. This unique idea is the backbone for K-grams, a campus group that is focused on being a positive influence to youngsters and, as a result, has developed a sterling reputation.

Beth Dykstra
K-grams is known for providing pen pals to elementary school students in the Ann Arbor and Detroit area. (Trevor Campbell/Daily)

This year, K-grams was given the University’s Outstanding Student Organizations award. An entirely run student organization, K-grams has been on campus for the past seven years. The group, whose name stands for Kids Programs, focuses on service learning and student mentoring.

With a membership of over 3,500 students, K-grams provides an opportunity for college students to mentor and interact with elementary students — giving all audiences involved authentic learning experiences, as well as the ability to foster storng relationships that encourage higher education.

“The basic premise behind our mission is that learning occurs most often outside of the classroom,” said executive director Heather McManus, an LSA senior.

She said the mission of K-grams is to establish a strong community of learning for a wide range of college and elementary students, staff and families by developing positive relationships and experiences that extend beyond the classroom.

“K-grams is a program that people feel good to be a part of; you think you are simply making a difference in the life of a little kid, but you realize in the end that they made a difference in you,” McManus said.

One of K-grams’ most well-known services is its pen pal program. The residence hall on campus are each paired up with one of their nine schools. Students who live in each residence hall are welcome to apply to be a pen pal in the beginning of the year. Those who have applied then write a monthly letter to an elementary student at their residence hall’s paired school.

Throughout the year, members of K-grams’ Smile Programming Council plan educational projects and take the pen pals into the classroom to volunteers with their younger buddies. In the fall, they had over 1500 applicants for 800 pen pal spots.

Elizabeth Barret, an LSA junior, described her experience working with the pen pal program as one that has had a positive impact on her.

“My peers are dedicated, enthusiastic and caring, as are the elementary teachers we work with. I have been privileged to be involved with the events and the people who have participated in them,” Barret said.

Another one of K-grams’ main programs is BookMARK. The MARK of BookMARK stands for “Mentoring and Reading with Kids.”

Each week, there are nine different BookMARK sessions at nine elementary schools. The schools include two in Detroit, two in Willow Run and five located in Ann Arbor. Any University student can sign up on the website, www.umich.edu/~smile, to be a BookMARK volunteer, which involves teaching the younger students how to read better and gain a greater appreciation for books.

“This year, our attendance at BookMARK has been outstanding — with some sessions reaching capacity at 30 volunteers,” McManus said.

Tomorrow, Kids-Fair, the largest event K-grams sponsors, comes to Crisler arena.

Kids-Fair is the culminating event for the year. All 800 elementary students in the program will be coming to Crisler Arena to meet their college pen pals.

Any University student may sign up to be a Kids-Fair buddy and spend the day at Crisler with an elementary student. There will be over 100 student groups from all over campus hosting a booth activity that revolves around the theme, “Get Your Game Face On.”

The buddies — both big and small — will be traveling through an educational K-grams board game, in which the duos will navigate through the play lands of Solve-It Swamp, Move-It Mountain, Imagination Island and Creation Canyon, accomplishing tasks along the way.

“Kids-Fair is truly an unique event that brings together thousands of people — little kids, college buddies, U of M athletes, U of M faculty, elementary teachers and community members,” McManus said.

Whether it’s being a pen pal, helping kids read or just being a friend to a child, the K-grams volunteers find their work rewarding.

“Even if a child has been having a bad day, our presence alone changes that; this is how we know we have done our job,” said Ryan Pawlowki, an LSA freshman.

“The fact that a child’s day has been made better just from our presence shows how vital this program is, because here at K-grams, we are all about the kids,” he added.


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