Handwritten letters and bicycles can bring children together faster than Facebook and text messages. Or at least they can make the process of developing friendships more exciting and memorable.

This is the belief of Pat Ogburn, a third-grade teacher at Central Elementary School. Ogburn can argue this point from experience for she has been running a Pen Pal-Biking program for at least three decades.

Through the program, students in her class become pen pals each year with another third-grade class in the La Grande School District. They exchange letters throughout the year. Then in May the students bicycle to a midway point between their schools to have lunch with their pen pals.

Ogburn’s program partner for this innovative program has involved a third-grade class from Island City Elementary since the fall of 2006. Another successful chapter was completed Friday when Ogburn’s students and those from Holly Wagner’s Island City third-grade class rode their bikes to Willow School to meet their pen pals.

When everyone had arrived, Ogburn called out the names of the pen pal duos and introduced them before they ate lunch together. Ogburn has done this each year for at least three decades, still she seems at least as excited as the students about the process of bringing the pen pals together.

“It is always an awesome experience,” she said. “(The pen pals) are so happy to see each other for the first time.”

The program went well Friday despite some rain and a shortage of bikes. Children normally ride their own bikes to Willow but this year it was discovered late in the week that some children did not have bikes to ride or helmets so parents from other families stepped forward to provide extra bicycles.

“It was pretty cool, (the way) the parents got things rolling,” Ogburn said.

Ogburn said the program has been a success in recent years in large part because of the help she has received from Wagner.

“She has been wonderful,” Ogburn said.

Ogburn has long urged her students to write their letters in cursive, something many are not very familiar with. She said it is good for children to write cursive because it takes more time, which results in more thoughtful letters being written.

“It makes them think,” Ogburn said.

The third-grade teacher also noted it helps children develop better signatures.

Ogburn smiles when recalling how students’ writing often looks as they first learn how to write in cursive.

“It sometimes looks like hieroglyphics,” she said.

The students are also taught how to fold letters, address envelopes, attach proper postage and mail them.

Ogburn is moved every year at how excited students get when they receive a letter from their pen pal.

“It is as if they are getting unopened Christmas presents,” she said.

Students in their letters normally share basic information about themselves. Ogburn said there have been a number of instances in which pen pals have gone on to become good friends.

Ogburn began her Pen Pal-
Biking program early in her career, when she taught fourth grade at Willow Elementary School and set up a pen pal exchange with Island City Elementary.

Ogburn was transferred to Central Elementary in 2006, where she continued the program and kept the Island City connection. The status of the program today is now uncertain because Ogburn will retire in June after a 40-year career with the La Grande School District.

During the many years Ogburn has operated her program, there have been students in the participating pen pal classes who do not know how to ride a bike. Ogburn and Wagner have spent time each school year teaching these children how to ride.

Central Elementary School Principal Suzy Mayes has helped Ogburn run her program since becoming Central’s principal four years ago. She said watching her teach children to ride bikes is a delight.

“The joy on the students’ faces as they learn to ride is so rewarding, and it is most certainly a confidence builder,” Mayes said.

Mayes, who attended Friday’s meeting of pen pals, is also a big fan of Ogburn’s program.

“It is a very special event and most certainly (creates) memories that last a lifetime. This program is extremely rewarding to watch in action,” the principal said.