NFL pen pal program gives students a new perspective

London Leslie hasn't met her pen pal, but she is already excited about her new friend.

They both love art, want to play basketball and side with Team Jacob from the popular Twilight book series.

"We have a lot in common, like we're both very competitive in things," said London, 10, a fifth-grader at Lowery Road Elementary School in Fort Worth.

Her pen pal is a student at Duff Elementary School in Arlington. The two girls are getting to know each other through an NFL pen pal program that is part of local activities leading up to Super Bowl XLV.

Eight classrooms in North Texas are participating in the "One World" program, in which students write a series of letters to each other discussing the communities they are involved in, discrimination they've seen and different cultures. The students will then get to meet each other during the first week of February.

The NFL and Scholastic Inc. started the program in 2001 as a way to help children cope and express themselves after 9-11. It was initially used as curriculum -- sent to various cities across the country -- to get classrooms to discuss diversity.

But leading up to the 2008 Super Bowl in Arizona, officials created the pen pal aspect of the program, said Anna Isaacson, NFL director of community programs. Classrooms are paired with those in schools that have a different makeup than their own.

"Even though the kids are from different communities or neighborhoods, they are all kids and they have a lot of the same kinds of interests and values," Isaacson said.

About 75 percent of Lowery Road's students are considered economically disadvantaged, and nearly 60 percent of the students are black. By contrast, about 70 percent of Duff Elementary students are white and 30 percent are classified as economically disadvantaged.

But in their letters so far, students are focusing on what they have in common, such as the desire to help others.

Duff students, for example, wrote about collecting money for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

"When the first letters came in, you would have thought it was Christmas presents," said Cherry Jones, a teacher at Lowery Road. "It's neat for them to get a letter that's handwritten and just for them."

As part of the program, students discuss stereotypes and discrimination and learn about different cultures and ethnicities.

Fifth-grader Carrington Black said he's seen discrimination first-hand. One year, children in his former neighborhood excluded his sister from games because she was black, even though she kept trying to be their friends.

"They would never play with her," said Carrington, 11, who was also sharing his story with his pen pal at Duff.

Jones encouraged her students to help stop such discrimination by avoiding stereotypes.

Student Daylen Henry agreed. "You have to get to know somebody first," Daylen said.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700