"I just want to cry when I see them come together like this," said teacher Clara Schroeder.
This year, 28 students matched up with residents. The first letters went out in September, Schroeder said.
"They write one or two times a month and on special occasions like birthdays and holidays," Schroeder said. The children send photos of themselves, share their thoughts and ask questions in their letters. The seniors do much of the same writing to the children. "They share their lives through the mail," Schroeder said.
Every spring, the students go to Menno Haven to meet their pen pals face to face. The kids always bring flowers.
"I recognized him right away from his picture," Mary Ogden, 91, said of pen pal Kenneth D. Rife, 8. "He's a good boy. He's been writing nice letters to me."
"She's pretty nice," Rife said. "She's been writing nice letters back to me."
Rife hand-picked a bouquet of spring flowers for his pen pal.
Cecilmae Perkins, 82, said it was hard to write to Katrina Strickland, 9, at first. "It takes a lot of doing to think on her level," she said.
It didn't take long before the two realized they liked the same things. "I like reading and she likes to read," Strickland said. "She sounded nice in her letters and she's nice now."
Chaudae Kann, 9, and Robert J. Beard were chatting in another corner of the Menno Haven dining room. They were discovering that they both enjoy learning about history and social studies and like a lot of the same food.
"He's a real nice person. He's fun to talk to," Kann said.
"Chaudae is very pretty, polite and very intelligent. I'd like to have her in my class if I were a teacher," Beard said.
The end of the visit was spent with the children pushing the wheelchairs of their pen pals down the hall into their rooms so the residents could show them where they lived.
Occasionally, death interrupts a pen-pal relationship. Such was the case with Brett Hultzapple, 9, and his senior pen pal who died before they could meet.
"I've been writing to her all this time," Hultzapple said. "It's sad for me. We learned a lot about each other."
The woman sent Brett a soccer ball because she had learned through their correspondence that he loved the game.
Her daughter-in-law sent Brett a photo of her with a hand-written note on the back. Tuesday was the first time he saw what she looked like.
Schroeder said the children often continue to write to and visit their pen pals. Sometimes they take them home for dinner or out for a drive or a walk, Schroeder said.
"The residents lighten up when they get their letters, even if they can't always remember who they're from," said Stephanie Stitely said, activities director at Menno Haven. "They're just happy to have someone remember them, to write to them."
The students learn academically as well as socially, Schroeder said. "They learn about life years before they were born, about caring for others and a little understanding about the experiences and needs of senior citizens."
And they learn about hugs, because a lot of them were shared as well on Tuesday.