Gering Junior High students to meet Louisiana pen pals face-to-face

March 22, 2019

GERING — Gering Junior High seventh graders in Shannon Kauffman‘s class talked with their pen pals in Louisiana via Skype March 20.

Students gathered in the learning center, located in the Freshman Academy, Wednesday morning for what they thought was just a Skype call with Kimberly Anderson’s English class. But, Anderson’s students shared they are coming to Gering May 2-4 to meet them.

The 20 students attend Green Oaks Performing Arts Academy in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Giants will travel 16 hours by charter bus and will spend two nights in Gering.

Upon hearing the surprise, the Bulldogs became overjoyed and shocked.

“I was surprised that they would drive all this way to see us,” said Bayli Biltjinitis.

As arrangements are finalized, Biltjinitis said she wants to show the students Scotts Bluff National Monument because “It holds a lot of history of what Nebraska is.”

Brooke Crane is also excited to meet the pen pals, since communicating over Skype can be a challenge.

“I want to take them out to the country to see all the fields and animals,” said Crane. “I would like to show them our classrooms, just to see how ours are different than theirs.”

Kauffman said the idea arose in December and was recently approved by the Green Oaks school board.

“We’ve been keeping it secret because they had to fundraise almost $20,000 and they’re close to that goal,” said Kauffman.

The charter bus expenses are covered, but the class is still raising money for lodging and meals.

Kauffman and Anderson connected after Lisa Hadenfeldt, who teaches at the Freshman Academy, emailed Kauffman in July about a pen pal project.

“Immediately I sent Kimberly an email and said, ‘I’m from Gering, Nebraska, and if you don’t have someone, I would love to do this project. It sounds fun.’”

Every month, the students write letters about their lives in Nebraska and include a box of goodies containing popular Nebraska items like Huskers attire, Gering Public Schools attire and brochures on local attractions like Chimney Rock, Legacy of the Plains Museum and Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Jenna Davis wrote a letter about Gering Junior High’s transition to a middle school, the Gering and Scottsbluff rivalry and the local restaurants.

“I go to Gering Junior High,” she wrote. “So our school is a junior high right now, but next year, it’s going to be a middle school. Gering is a small town really close to another town called Scottsbluff. There is a big rivalry between the two towns. The thing I like most about Gering and Scottsbluff is the food. We have the best Mexican food you can find. We also have a restaurant called Runza that’s really popular.”

Seventh grader Mason Barrett highlighted the state’s athletics, focusing on the University of Nebraska.

“The state of Nebraska love sports. When I say they love sports, I mean they LOVE sports,” he said. “ I think that our best sport is women’s volleyball because in the past 13 years, we have won three national championships and two of them came in three years. The sport that we get the most recognition for though is definitely football. You may have heard of our recently hired coach, Scott Frost. In my opinion, football is my favorite college sport to watch.”

After the classes receive their monthly boxes, Kauffman and Anderson email about the items the students found most interesting. One item the Giants reacted to was a dried ear of corn.

“We sent it at the end of harvest when one girl in my class brought in a couple corn cobs,” said Kauffman. “They were like ‘It gets hard? I had no idea.’ So that was one they really reacted over, she said.”

As the Gering students send another package to their pen pals, Biltjinitis said this opportunity taught her about America’s diversity.

“I think it’s smart to set it up because you can learn about even in the United States, there are different ways people celebrate things,” she said.

Both Biltjinitis and Crane said they learned Louisiana is always hot and the students like to eat spicy foods and crawdads. They said they want to try jambalaya.

With the pen pal experience culminating in the students meeting each other, Kauffman hopes “This multicultural event is one that will impact them significantly and will hopefully be something they remember for a long time.”

The Giants continue to fundraise ahead of their departure date in hopes of learning about life as a Nebraskan. The fundraiser link is tinyurl.com/yyeo7ulg.

According to the event description, the Giants are planning a three-day trip to Gering, so the students can meet their friends and “learn the ways of being a Bulldog, as well as eat all of the corn and potatoes we can to become a true Nebraskan.”