Providence Non-Profit Inspiring Minds’ Pen Pal Program Sparks a Unique Friendship

An East Side Rotarian and local third grader collaborate on a whimsical tale that parallels their real lives

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“One sunny day a girl named Princess Sofia received a letter from a sweet lady named Miss Wendy,” opens the enchanting tale of a young royal dwelling in a kingdom where dragons aren’t out of the ordinary, tigers sunbathe by the palace pool, a kindly Postman Frank delivers letters between Sofia and Queen Wendy, and adventures feature a cast of friends, family, and talking creatures.

This world, with all the trappings of a fairy tale, came from the mind of third grader Sofia Vasquez, who co-wrote and illustrated her own book over the course of two years with the help of “Miss Wendy” Marcus. The pair met through a unique pen pal program created by Inspiring Minds, an education organization supporting Providence Public Schools with mentorship programming. 

This first volume of their collaborative work now exists in a limited-edition (only four copies printed for friends and family) hardback assembled by Marcus and presented to Vasquez for Christmas last year. 

“Over the two years, her drawings, her pictures, her vocabulary, her imagination have improved with each letter. It’s unbelievable,” says Marcus, an East Side resident and Providence Rotarian who signed up for the pen pals program two years ago and was randomly matched with Vasquez. Exchanging letters every couple of weeks, Marcus and Vasquez take turns penning chapters of the continuing saga of Princess Sofia, Queen Wendy, and Their Adventures.

“I feel happy when I’m writing it,” shares Vasquez. “It’s technically our relationship and then sometimes we put things that actually can’t happen. So when [Miss Wendy] sends me stuffed animals, she has stories about them and then we get to add it in the story.”

Paging through the story reveals Vasquez’s colorful illustrations of castles and friends flying kites, along with cutout pictures of rabbits, flowers, and butterflies. Vasquez, with her love of animals, contributes lines like, “Then the white bird came and it sat on the edge of the throne and told Princess Sofia and her pet Angel the Rabbit all about the outside world,” while Marcus follows with details about the cottontail dubbed “Roberta” who frequents her backyard. 

A separate letter is dedicated to the more traditional musings you would expect from a pen pal relationship, sharing details of their lives from week to week. “She describes her sisters, her cousins, her parents, her grandparents, camping, vacations, her ballet lessons; she spends time at the library – those are in her regular letters,” says Marcus.

“Our pen pal program was inspired by our volunteers,” says Melissa Emidy, executive director of Inspiring Minds. “After schools closed on March 13, 2020, we surveyed [our 604] volunteers to ask them how they wanted to respond to the pandemic during the shutdown. Our organization believes strongly that relationships matter. They thought it would be a great idea to continue writing to their kids.” 

Outside of their creative writing, Marcus and Vasquez’s family have grown closer, too. When Marcus mentioned in a letter during December 2020 that she and her husband were homebound with COVID, mom Sayda Arriaza brought over dinner. This past January, Marcus invited Vasquez and her mother to attend a meeting for the Rotary Club of Providence to encourage members to volunteer in the pen pal program with Harry Kizirian Elementary School.

“I was nervous – Miss Wendy said I was kind of like the star of the show,” says Vasquez, who spoke in front of the group. According to Marcus, “she melted every Rotarian’s heart.” Vasquez also brought a bag of her own books to donate to the club’s Little Free Library at Brown Street Park.

While the 2019-2020 academic year saw 42 active pen pals, the numbers have lessened with the return to in-person classes, but Inspiring Minds continues to welcome volunteers. As for Marcus and Vasquez, volume two of their novel is in the works, and their pen pal relationship is stronger than ever.

“It’s fostering her creativity in drawing and art, vocabulary, and imagination,” says Marcus. “It’s everything, it’s sharing your life, sharing history and knowledge.”

Prospective pen pals can apply online at InspiringMindsRI.org/for-volunteers/

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