Pen pals meet in real life at Howe school

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Cell phones aren't usually permitted in the halls of Julia Ward Howe Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon. But teachers made one exception Monday.

Fifth-grader Courtney Walsh was glued to her iPhone, and for good reason -- she was using an app to help translate for friends Valentina "Vale" Fontora and Valentina "Naomi" Mezquida,

The children are visiting from Mercedes, Uruguay, meeting the pen pals they've been writing to for years. Along with their teacher, Claudia Lopez Zapata, they will spend two weeks in Pittsburgh as part of a cultural grant from the U.S. Department of State.

During a schoolwide welcome assembly in Howe Auditorium Monday, teachers played a recording of the country's national anthem. A tide of paper Uruguayan flags bobbed up and down from the floor where students gathered.

Greeting the crowd in Spanish and English, school officials presented the girls with several gifts. Two teachers tangoed for a raucous crowd while the student orchestra performed a traditional song from the South American country.

Their pen pals, Madison Maselko and the iPhone-savvy Courtney, also presented the girls with handmade friendship bracelets.

During their visit, the girls will stay with the Maselko and Walsh families, who have a full schedule of activities planned, including a dinner cruise, hayride and trick-or-treating.

Vale and Naomi will dress as Sesame Street characters Elmo and Oscar the Grouch for Halloween.

Dan and Laura Walsh, Courtney's parents, said they welcomed the chance to act as one of the two host families, so the girls could experience American culture and family life.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity for my daughter," Ms. Walsh added.

That theme was pervasive throughout the hourlong event.

"We hope to learn from them as much as they learn from us," said Nancy Campbell, the school's world language supervisor.

The ongoing pen pal program -- called "Amigos Para Siempre" or "Friends Forever"-- connects students at Howe and Foster elementary schools with students from Uruguay's Educardo Victor Haedo School, No. 65. Organized by Howe Spanish teacher Elaine Palmer, the program lets students keep in touch by writing and via Skype, a free video chat program.

Vale, 10, and Naomi, 11, were chosen for the sojourn because of their good behavior and strong standing in school. They also wrote winning paragraphs about why wanted to visit the U.S.

As little girls often do, Vale and Naomi snapped photos of almost everything with their jewel-toned digital cameras. Both giggled nervously and shifted a little when asked to speak. Back home, they carry cell phones. Vale wears glitter hair clips. They count English as their favorite subject. Naomi also loves math.

As Courtney, also 10, put it: "They're not different."

Sharing a love for Selena Gomez, the girls traveled to Cleveland State University Sunday with the Walsh family to watch the Disney Channel singer-actress perform in concert. As part of their application essay, the girls wrote that their dream was to see Ms. Gomez.

On hand to welcome the guests, state Rep. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, warned them not to warm to the Cleveland sports scene.

"You have to be a Steelers fan," he said.

They'll get the chance to wave those Terrible Towels. The Walsh family is hosting a Steelers party Friday, and the girls will show off the team's new Spanish-language regalia, La Toalla Terrible.

In an effort to include the Uruguayan school in the day's festivities, Howe Elementary streamed live video of the assembly into the girls' classroom back home.

Tears collected in Ms. Palmer's eyes as she read the email from Maria Emilia Galagorri Nole, the English teacher at the Uruguayan school, who visited Howe when the partnership first began. She was following the stream from the girls' school.

"It's unbelievable what we saw," the email read. "We saw it very clear."

Of all the world's Spanish-speaking countries, why Uruguay?

Ms. Palmer had a connection there that she was eager to revisit. Years ago, she lived in the country, which borders Brazil and Argentina. Her son graduated from high school there.

Years later, back in Pittsburgh, Ms. Palmer began applying for grants to bolster technology resources in the country. Ms. Lopez Zapata's district, which shared a single LCD projector among its schools, showed a profound need.

So, she went back to make it happen, and the response was tremendous. "I felt like a queen or the president of the United States," Ms. Palmer said.

Through one of her first grants, the school was able to purchase its own projector and other classroom necessities.

"There are no words," Ms. Lopez Zapata said of her experience here, through Ms. Palmer, who translated into English. "I hope this continues."

So does Courtney. She said she plans to visit her friends in their home country next year. Until then, one thing is certain, she said: The girls will stay close.

After all, those friendship bracelets aren't supposed to come off.

Molly Born: or 412-263-1944.


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