While many people believe that writing letters is an old-fashioned and outdated activity, they’re mistaken: there are still those who eagerly await an envelope in their letterbox.
But isn’t it easier to send an email or make a video call on WhatsApp, you ask?
While these options are definitely quicker, they aren’t as rewarding.
Not as rewarding as filling a blank piece of paper with your thoughts, sealing it in an envelope and sending it to a faraway friend, before waiting excitedly to receive and read their response.
This is how friendships were formed between Year 2 students at the Italian Bilingual School (IBS) in Sydney and their peers at Oak Valley Anangu School, in the most remote Aboriginal community of South Australia.
Their respective teachers, Lorenna and Kirsten, met in a Facebook group and decided to start the pen pal project with their students believing the experience would be a rich one for everybody involved.
The lives of students from both schools couldn’t be more different: those from the IBS live in a bustling metropolis with beaches and parks, while those from Oak Valley live in the arid and scarcely populated area of Maralinga, at the edge of the Great Victoria Desert.
The IBS has 140 students – that’s more than the entire population of Oak Valley.
The number of people who live in the community of Oak Valley varies depending on different cultural factors and traditions, such as funerals which can last for weeks.
Francene, Celina, Simon, Samuel and Nadia found it strange to see the school uniforms of their new friends in Sydney and to learn that they’d received their letters from the mailbox – an object which doesn’t exist in Oak Valley, as mail is delivered just once a week by a truck.
Meanwhile, IBS students Lucia, Yani, Arianna and Federico were surprised by the distance between Sydney and Oak Valley: when they typed it in to Google Maps, they discovered they could fly to Rome in less time!
In fact, to get to Oak Valley, they’d have to drive for 37 hours ... without stopping!
The exchange of letters between New South Wales and South Australia becomes more fun and exciting every time.
Students at both schools are particularly open and curious to learn about the differences and similarities between their worlds.
For example, many IBS students speak English as a second language – something they have in common with the children in Oak Valley, who speak Pitjantjatjara at home and learn English at school.
Enthusiasm builds with every letter.
Francene, Celina and Samuel were a little hesitant to begin with, however.
When Kirsten said that they were going to write letters in English to kids in Sydney, they thought it was just a lie to make them practise their writing.
But when they saw envelopes and stamps arrive – and then photos of their letters once they were opened in Sydney – they began to believe her.
The first question was: “When will our letters from Sydney arrive?”
It was a long wait, but the students’ patience paid off.
IBS students were also less interested to begin with, but can’t stop talking about their pen pals now ... even at home with their parents!
Lorenna and Kirsten said that with every letter come new ideas to discuss in class that fit perfectly into the curriculum.
Another teacher at the IBS, Alice, is also involved in the project: during the history and geography lessons that she teaches in Italian, she often refers to it seeing as students learnt about “family” and “Australian places” in Term 2.
The letters are often accompanied by photos and souvenirs: IBS students made bookmarks decorated with Italian icons, while Oak Valley students sent albums that show their regular explorations of their natural surroundings.
Every few weeks, the latter participate in “bush days”, when they have the chance to explore nature, hear stories and learn about the tracks that animals leave and how to collect food like witchetty grubs (pictured below, which Federico from the IBS would love to try!)
On these days, the students are accompanied by the women at the local cultural centre and community elders.
With their families, the children also hunt for malu (red kangaroo), and eat their tails.
These are all invaluable experiences which allow the children to learn about their culture and traditions and preserve them.
Meanwhile, the pen pal project gives the children the chance to extend beyond their remote surroundings and feel closer to other kids their age.
In Sydney, IBS students are just as grateful for the project: Lucia has even given out her home address so she doesn’t lose contact with her new friends!
Oak Valley was established in 1985 for the Anangu communities who had to leave the Maralinga lands following British nuclear tests in the 1950s.
It is named after the desert oaks that populate the vicinity of the community.
Visitors need permission to access the area and it is a sacred site for Aboriginal communities from three states: Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia.