UNC football player Kyle Murphy took a leadership role in the program this year.
“Obviously, playing football puts me on kind of a platform, and I just try to use that to help the kids,” he said.
Sawyer said New Hope students write to their pen pals three times a semester, and the social mixer at the baseball game gives New Hope students and their pen pals the first opportunity to talk in person.
“I do see some of the stuff the athletes write and that the little kids write,” Sawyer said. “Men’s basketball participates, so you’ve got one kid that’s giving Justin Jackson advice on his shooting.”
Breeze said the UNC athletes sometimes serve as confidants when New Hope students experience personal stress.
“A lot of our students in their letters to pen pals open up and share stuff that they don’t share with teachers,” Breeze said. “Some come from single-parent households, and this gives them a role model.”
Breeze said that sometimes she has personally written to athletes if they haven’t returned their pen pal’s letter.
“One of the reasons I wanted to continue the program was kids from other classes would stop me in the hallways and say, ‘Ms. Breeze, have our letters come back?’ or, ‘Ms. Breeze, I didn’t get a letter,’” she said.
Murphy said that part of what makes the program rewarding for participating student-athletes is that they’re in a unique position to support their pen pals.
Sawyer said that the program has grown to include about 300 student-athletes from a wide variety of sports.
“I think there’s a lot of teams, like softball, tennis, that’ll encourage their pen pals to come out to one of their games,” Sawyer said. “Sometimes they end up doing that, so for the sports that don’t get as much attention, this can be really great for their team.”
New Hope fifth-grader Ella Breeze, Angela Breeze’s daughter, said she and her pen pal have written at least five letters to each other the past few months.
“I like writing the letters and decorating them,” Ella Breeze said. “It’s always fun to get to know new people.”