Mount Merici Academy in Waterville is seen recently during the school day. Haley Hersey/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — As the coronavirus pandemic persisted during the summer months last year, Maureen Rispoli and her coworkers at Mount Merici Academy brainstormed about how to bring the theme of “service” to the upcoming school year.

Rispoli, the K-8 French teacher and 3-8 art teacher at the private Catholic school, said they decided to create a pen-pal program with Oak Grove Center and Mount Saint Joseph Residences.

“They are all passionate,” Rispoli said. “They’re really proud of their work.”

Mount Merici Academy’s motto is Serviam, or “I will serve,” and traditionally they integrate this motto into their teachings. In a typical, non-COVID year, students in grades 6-8 would participate in weekly volunteering on Wednesday in a variety of local settings out in the community. Some students have volunteered at the Muskie Center, the area soup kitchen, the food pantry, or in the lower wing classrooms.

With the groundwork for this project laid out in the summer months, children returned to school, which has 140 students, and were able to dive in and form connections with their pen-pal. Most students ended up having two or three pen-pals since there were more residents than students.

Fatima Sheikh, an eighth-grader at the school, said “it was interesting hearing from women who have lived so many experiences throughout their long lives.”

“It was a really cool experience getting to know someone without meeting them,” said Emmy Carlson, also an eighth-grader.

However, the pen-pal program quickly shifted into a larger scale operation when the Perloff Family Foundation, through the Maine Community Foundation, awarded Mount Merici with a $1,700 grant.

“They help Maine schools tremendously. They’re a very generous couple,” Rispoli said.

The front sign for Mount Merici Academy in Waterville. Haley Hersey/Morning Sentinel

The grant allowed for 38 students to also share artwork with residents at the same nursing homes. The pen-pal program and the art show go hand-in-hand, but if it were not for the grant, Rispoli does not think the operation would be as successful as it has been.

As the students create the art, Rispoli films them and takes photos of their progress. Both the students and residents at the nursing homes get to watch the videos and montages.

“They really like knowing other people outside the school will see their artwork and creativity,” Rispoli said. “The students are all heart.”

Mount Merici’s language arts teacher, Deb Biche-Labbe, helps the students write their letters while Rispoli helps them with the artwork. They have established a drop-off and pick-up system with Oak Grove and Mount Saint Joseph due to limited guests being allowed inside the facilities.

Lisa McCausland, recreation director at Oak Grove Center, said that the students’ artwork will be on display for about a week throughout the facility. Residents will be free to wander about and look at the art from students they have spent the school year corresponding with.

“It’s been really nice for those residents,” McCausland said. “They really enjoy it. I think the students really enjoy it, too.”

Some students have enjoyed the program so much that they will continue writing to their pen-pals throughout the summer and McCausland said the program may continue on after that and grow.

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