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Book and Author Visit Inspires Fox Lane Middle Schoolers
“The biggest achievement we could have is inspiring you to go out there and do something good for others,” author Caitlin Alifirenka told a group of sixth graders at Fox Lane Middle School. “You don’t have to send money to someone 10,000 miles away. Kindness starts in your home, your school, your community.”
Alifirenka and co-author Liz Welch — a Fox Lane and West Patent Elementary School alum — visited the school during a sixth grade English Language Arts (ELA) Authors Team Day to discuss their book, I Will Always Write Back.
A dual memoir, the book recounts how Alifirenka and Martin Ganda (also a co-author) became best friends through a pen pal exchange while living 10,000 miles apart. Their connection was so strong that Alifirenka’s family in Pennsylvania sent money to Zimbabwe to support Ganda and his family, which ensured he and his siblings got an education. Eventually, they brought him to the United States.
“The book connects to our beginning of the year community building,” said 6 East ELA teacher Nichole Shortman. “It promotes kindness in all aspects of life. It shows how a small thing can make a big difference for someone else.”
The teachers kick off the unit with a pen pal project, pairing new middle-school students with their peers in different houses. Writing to each other via email, students get a sense of what Alifirenka and Ganda experienced.
After reading the book and learning about how Alifirenka’s actions affected Ganda, students could not wait to meet her and Welch. Teachers held a lottery for students to have a chance to have lunch with the authors.
Students asked the authors how they remembered so many details.
“Liz taught me something I never thought about: Your memory is not always how it happened,” Alifirenka said. “Liz went through diaries and old notes to friends with dates.”
Welch spent a lot of time making sure that Alifirenka and Ganda’s memories matched up with what had actually happened.
“I’m a journalist,” she told the group of students. “As a journalist, you have to tell the closest thing to the truth that you can tell. We can back up everything you read in that book.”
Aside from speaking with the lucky lunch winners and being interviewed by student government for the paper, the authors also presented to the entire sixth grade.
Welch told students that she grew up in the community and was first encouraged to become a writer by an English teacher at Fox Lane Middle School. She shared old yearbook photos and talked about her first book, explaining how it led her to meet Alifirenka and Ganda.
Alifirenka gave some insight into her and Ganda’s story, showing students old photos and a video from the first time they met.
“An act of kindness changed the course of Martin’s life,” she said.
This idea of small acts of kindness resonated with the teachers and their students.
“Last year, in the spirit of the book, we wanted to do a service project that would affect our community,” 6 South teacher Lisa Aquilino said. “Neighbors Link is a wonderful resource for many district families. When we reached out to see how we could help, they happened to be in the process of collecting toys for Mercado de las Fiestas. We started our own collection at the middle school and FLMS families and staff were eager to contribute. It was such a success, we continued it again this year, filling multiple cars with new toys and hundreds of dollars in gift cards.”
Welch told students that Alifirenka had one wish before the book came out: that it would touch just one person. Thanks to FLMSA’s support, the authors have visited Fox Lane Middle School for the last three years and it is safe to say the authors achieved that goal many times over in Bedford Central School District alone.
“One of the themes the students identified from the memoir was that you can never estimate the impact of one small act of kindness,” said 6 West ELA teacher Lori Philbin. “We hope that they carry that message with them and always choose to be kind.”