As part of a pen pal program, a group of fourth-graders at Navajo Elementary School in Scottsdale enjoyed a one-of-a-kind experience last month – the chance to have lunch and meet with local elderly residents who they had been pen pals with throughout the semester. One of the pen pals, Dorothy Mazurek, is a Holocaust survivor who shared her life story and experiences with the children through handwritten letters and as a guest speaker in their classroom.
The pen pal program was hosted by Duet: Partners in Health & Aging, an interfaith nonprofit with strong support from the local Jewish community, and supported by a grant from the Scottsdale Charros. Sue Reckinger, volunteer services director at Duet, explained that the program matched six of Duet’s “neighbors” (the elderly or homebound people the nonprofit serves) with pen pals in three fourth-grade classes at Navajo Elementary School.
The pen pal initiative, which just finished its second year, aimed to provide the elderly neighbors with a service opportunity, while also teaching students the art of letter writing and correspondence. This was Mazurek’s second year participating in the intergenerational project.
Mazurek has been involved with Duet since 1991 and receives free-of-charge services such as paperwork help, shopping and friendly visits from volunteers.
Mazurek, originally from Poland, shared that she survived the Holocaust as a child. She led a colorful life; in her early 20s she was a performer who toured throughout Europe and, eventually, she moved to the United States, where she became a lawyer. She accomplished all this while losing her sight due to a progressive disease, she said.
“I participated in the pen pal program to help give back to Duet, which has been such a big part of my life,” Mazurek said. “I really enjoyed the questions the children asked and I looked forward to responding to each of them.”
Mazurek was a pen pal for 12 children in the program. While she has always been open about the fact that she’s a Holocaust survivor, she said that she preferred to only answer questions if her young pen pals asked them directly.
“It’s obviously a tough subject that many kids may not be prepared to hear about,” she explained.
Still, when asked to share, she was very open about her experiences.
“One pen pal asked me the scariest thing to happen to me as a child and I shared about how when I was about 4 to 4 1/2 I was in a displaced persons camp and I was awakened in the middle of the night with my family; we had to immediately run to meet the train to the next camp,” Mazurek said.
While Mazurek had specific pen pals, the teacher would discuss each letter with the class as a whole.
“Dorothy’s involvement in the pen pal program was amazing timing as we [the class] had just studied World War II,” said Stacey Neuharth, a teacher involved in the program.
When she met the students and spoke to the class, Mazurek’s overall theme was “just go for it.”
“I’m here to be a voice and a face for those who aren’t here to speak,” Mazurek said. “If I would tell the local American Jewish community something it would be to let us make our community a shining beacon that’s united as one, and to get involved and be there for those in the community that have a need.”