This summer, as they have for the past two years, some patient and diligent Waverly-area children have been assembling the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Waverly branch at 33rd and Barclay streets. They are learning the disappearing art of letter writing. Every few months, they compose and send correspondence to fellow students they've never met in Maryborough, Australia, a town of 8,000 residents in the sheep-raising country outside of Melbourne.
"I've never had a group of children who were as motivated and as persistent as these are. In an age when it's difficult to get children to read, these children are writing as well," said children's librarian Linda Schwartz.
Their efforts didn't stop with paper, envelopes and air-mail stamps. After dozens of letters departed the Waverly post office, the children decided to make a video so that their Australian counterparts would have a better picture of how they looked and talked.
There's 9-year-old Tabitha Hagin, a soft-spoken Hampden Elementary School student who lives in the 600 block of E. 34th St. She's reported to her Australian pen pal that she likes to read Cam Jansen mystery novels, her favorite foods are nachos and tacos, green beans, mint chocolate chip ice cream and Fruit Loops with milk. She also likes Ocean City.
Tabitha's friend, 11-year-old Amber Rowland, of the 700 block of W. 33rd St., tells her pen pal that she is also soft-spoken and is fond of breakfasts of Wheaties with whole white milk.
Jason Byrd, 11 and a Holy Spirit School student -- formerly St. Bernard's on Gorsuch Avenue -- is anything but quiet. He's the letter writers' chief motor-mouth. He writes about pit bulls and his prowess at the computer game "Ancient Empire," which he plays for hours at the Waverly Library.
"He didn't want to do the letter writing at first. It took some prodding. After he saw he could participate -- and talk -- in the video, he made every session on his own," said his mother, Darise Claude. The family lives in the 400 block of Ilchester Ave.
"This Waverly Library is the way it should be. It caters to the children. I will always remember the first story hour I ever attended. It was 'Ricky Ticky Timbo,' at the old St. Paul Street branch. It was just around the corner from my home," Ms. Claude said.
She laughs when she hears a plan her son has concocted to
make and market T-shirts that say, "I survived Greenmount and 21st," a reference to the gunfire that broke out during a dice game on that street the day before Easter. Twelve people were wounded but none died.
Kimberly Henderson, 13, who lives outside the neighborhood in the 1000 block of N. Calvert St., takes an MTA bus to the Waverly branch at least once a week. She volunteers at the service desk.
Kimberly, a Bryn Mawr School student, rolls her eyes at some of the more outrageous outbursts during the letter-writing sessions.
She writes that her favorite sport is lacrosse, her favorite foods are lobster, macaroni and squid. Her favorite vacation spot is Europe.
Other letter writers are Charles Muse, of the 3700 block of Greenmount Ave., and Elaine Chanell Nowlin, of the 600 block of Cator Ave.
One of the letter writers criticized the Australian pen pals.
"You can get very frustrated when they don't write back. I think the people over there are intimidated when they find out I'm older," said 15-year-old Laila Ali, who lives in the 3600 block of Old York Road and who will be an 11th-grader at Bryn Mawr in the fall.
She says that as the oldest of the letter writers, she's outgrowing the Waverly branch and is making increased use of the Pratt's Central Library on Cathedral Street.