The school year has ended for kids in Detroit Lakes, but the unique lessons learned over the past several weeks will continue to carry on in their hearts and minds.

When schools closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students had to learn to adapt to an ever-changing environment that included social distancing and online schooling, said Detroit Lakes Middle school teacher Nicole Courneya. As the weeks went on, they learned new skills and developed new tools for time management, communication and coping with stress.

Most importantly, she said, many students “learned the true meaning of kindness.”

Courneya, a sixth-grade language arts teacher, said her recent crop of 240 or so students found relief from the difficulties of the pandemic by turning their attention to others.

“In true Laker fashion, these students have spread kindness to others in their communities,” Courneya said in an email to the Tribune. “Many students have created hearts to decorate their living room windows as a way of spreading hope. Others have baked cookies and cupcakes to deliver to neighbors’ doorsteps. Quite a few have sent letters to grandparents who they were not able to visit face to face.”

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“Spending time away from their classmates and teachers left many students feeling lonely,” she added. “But instead of focusing on this empty feeling, the students decided to make a difference for another group perhaps also struggling with similar emotions.”

The students, ages 11 and 12, reached out to residents of area nursing homes, senior care facilities and assisted living spaces, crafting hand-written “pen pal” letters for them. The letters were mailed out to facilities in Detroit Lakes, Frazee and Vergas.

Recent sixth-grader Baileigh Canoy makes a heart sign with her hands in this photo, which she shared with her pen pal, Gwen Leith. (Submitted Photo)
Recent sixth-grader Baileigh Canoy makes a heart sign with her hands in this photo, which she shared with her pen pal, Gwen Leith. (Submitted Photo)
In return, Gwen Leith made the heart sign back to her pen pal, Baileigh Canoy. (Submitted Photo)
In return, Gwen Leith made the heart sign back to her pen pal, Baileigh Canoy. (Submitted Photo)

Using writing skills they learned in class, the kids told their pen pals all about themselves, including their families, their hobbies and their school. In return, many of the kids learned about the lives and thoughts of their pen pals, some of whom responded right away.

“These pen pal letters were full of hope as students shared happy memories and excitement for better days soon to come,” said Courneya. A lot of the kids included photographs or drawings with their letters.

Taylor Vogt, for example, said she told her pen pal, “Char,” a resident of the Frazee Care Center, about herself in her letter. In response, Char told Taylor a little about herself and the things she likes to do. Taylor enjoyed spreading some kindness through the pen pal project, and also made hearts to hang on her windows at home.

“I am enjoying spending more time with my family and being at home,” Taylor said. “I have been doing good during quarantine, but I do miss my friends at school.”

The experience of COVID-19, Courneya said, has taught her language arts students much more than how to write an essay or pen a letter.

“What can COVID-19 teach us?” she asks. “It can teach us that words are powerful. Powerfully good.”