19 Jul 2023

Pen Pals Summer Cookout: Community and Friendship in the Sunshine


by Shona Simkin

Abby’s favorite things are sleeping and reading. She also loves sunflowers, playing soccer, and asking her teenage brother for treats or favors because he can’t say no. Abby’s not a Harvard Business School (HBS) MBA student; she’s an eight-year-old third grader at Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston, and she and her classmates were recently on campus for a lunchtime cookout with their HBS staff pen pals.

Started in 1993 by Ruby Blake, who retired in 2020, the pen pal program connects HBS staff volunteers with schoolchildren from Gardner Pilot Academy for a monthly letter exchange and an annual campus gathering. This year’s summer lunch marked the program’s return after a three-year delay from COVID.

Since its inception, the program has united almost 1,000 pen pals. This spring there were 38 HBS staff pen pal volunteers matched with children from two third grade classes.

“We are so happy to re-establish our relationship with the Gardner Pilot Academy,” said Sylvia Chen, who manages the program through HR. “Seeing the joy on the faces of our colleagues and the third graders as they met for the first time in person was truly heartwarming. It is through programs like these that we not only give back, but also create a vibrant and engaging campus where everyone feels a sense of belonging.”

While Abby giggled in the sunshine with her pen pal Katherine Haynes from External Relations (ER), classmates ate hot dogs, hamburgers, and popsicles, played giant Jenga, and kicked the soccer ball around with their HBS pen pals.

Linda Kush, also from ER, has participated since she joined the School in 2005. “We are all very busy, and to have a volunteer opportunity where the logistics are worked out is really a great benefit of being at HBS,” she said. “We ask and answer questions and offer up our favorite colors or that sort of thing. It’s great to watch them go from being a little shy and not knowing what to write to getting more excited, and their language skills grow. In her second letter, my pen pal wrote, ‘I forgot to tell you the most important thing! I have a new baby sister!’ It was so touching—plus she had to think about the word ‘important,’ which is a big word!”

Emily Labrozzi says that an email from her pen pal, Ward, always brightens her day. “I spend a lot of time answering various questions from Executive Education participants planning their trips to campus—getting an email asking me who my favorite princess is makes me smile and pulls me out of my day-to-day routine.”

Milan, who is nine, says that she was most interested in finding out the birthday and personality of her pal, Sarah Whitney from ER. “I asked, ‘What’s your favorite dance, what’s your favorite sport?’ I told her that I have a baby sister. She cries a lot. She’s kind of annoying, but I still like her.” Sarah adds that Milan gives her tips on TikTok, and that they talk a lot about Milan’s favorite class (recess) and Sarah’s cat.

Ariana Fusco, Gardner Pilot Academy’s partnership manager and coordinator, was thrilled to start up the program again after the hiatus. “I never had a pen pal as a kid, but I always wanted one. I wanted an adult friend to talk with about life, or animals, or the things I was doing,” she said. “It’s been great being a part of this community with HBS, showing kids the beautiful campus in their neighborhood—and maybe it inspires them to think about college or careers that they could have someday.”

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