by Len Lear
Some of us had pen pals when we were in elementary school — children in foreign countries whose names were supplied to us by a teacher or someone in church. It is a wonderful way to let American children know that not every child in the world has the myriad advantages they do and that they should count their blessings that they were born in this country of freedom and abundance.
(Some adult pen pals have become historical legends, such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, our second and third presidents, who hated each other for years but then reconciled and started a correspondence in 1812, producing hundreds of letters that ended when both Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.)
But it is not likely that many children have ever had a pen pal correspondence quite like that of Caitlin Alifirenka, now 30, who was born in Chestnut Hill Hospital to Anne Neville and Richard Stoicsitz, and Martin Ganda, 32, who grew up in the slums of Mutare, Zimbabwe, a nation in southern Africa run by a corrupt dictator, Robert Mugabe, who rules the impoverished nation by terror, repression and cruelty.
When Caitlin was 12 and in 7th grade at Pennfield Middle School in Hatfield, near Lansdale in eastern Montgomery County, she received an assignment to begin writing to a pen pal. Every student had to pick someone in a faraway land. Most kids selected students in Europe, but Caitlin picked a student in Zimbabwe because it was the most exotic name of a country she had ever seen. Her pen pal was Martin Ganda, then 14. Martin was lucky to even receive a pen-pal letter. There were only 10 letters and 40 children in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one.
That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that dramatically changed two lives. The correspondence has basically never stopped, and it has been so compelling that a major book publisher, Little Brown, recently published them in the book, “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives.”
According to the book, which was written by Caitlin and Martin with the assistance of a professional author, Liz Welch, Martin loved receiving Caitlin’s photo, but when she requested one in return, “My heart went from sprinting to a standstill.” Martin then sent Caitlin the only photo his family owned. Hearing media accounts of Zimbabwe’s political and economic strife alarmed Caitlin, but a letter Martin wrote to her on a popsicle wrapper upset her. “I gasped. My friend was writing me on trash.”
Caitlin began to send Martin her babysitting money, which Martin’s family used to buy food and to pay school fees and rent — and Caitlin’s family eventually decided to sponsor Martin’s education. According to a review in Publishers Weekly last month, “Sensitively and candidly demonstrating how small actions can result in enormous change, this memoir of two families’ transformation through the commitment and affection of long-distance friends will humble and inspire.”
According to a review by Peter Godwin, an award-winning author and journalist, “This compelling story of an unlikely friendship across continents will quiet your inner skeptic and inspire you to take a chance. Moving and uplifting.” Out of 21 ratings of the book on goodreads.com, the average rating was 4.62 stars out of five.
Caitlin still lives in Hatfield with her husband, Dzmitry, who is originally from Belarus and works for American Tshirt LTD in Plumsteadville as a warehouse manager, and their daughters, Mila, 2, and Dasha, 3 months. Caitlin is a nurse in the Lehigh Valley Hospital Emergency Department.
Thanks in part to Caitlin, Martin was eventually able to come to the U.S. “He is the one who dreamed of becoming educated here,” said Caitlin. “I just helped him achieve his dream of getting here, along with my parents and our friends and family.” Martin received a full scholarship to attend Villanova University, and last year he earned an MBA at Duke University. He is currently living in New York City, where he works in the finance industry.
He and Caitlin still write to one another regularly but by email or text, not hand-written letters. “I have most of the letters from Martin (over the years),” Caitlin told us last week, “but not all. I was a messy teenager, so I think some were lost in the shuffle of my messy room.”
What gave Caitlin the idea to write a book about their correspondence? “Martin was approached by someone at a Zimbabwean event who heard our story probably about four or five years ago. And then we were connected with our agent, Sarah Burnes; then she connected us with the amazing (author) Liz Welch.”
What has been the response to the book so far? “We have gotten such an amazing response to our book. In fact, I didn’t think it would be this great! People seem to really enjoy it and its message … I want young people to understand that if they can do one small thing for someone else, it could change their lives. Take chances and follow your hearts.”
“I Will Always Write Back” is available from amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com, among others. More information at firstname.lastname@example.org