Cary Junior High School hosts New York Times best-selling author

Caitlin Alifirenka speaks of writing letters, changing lives

CARY – Cary Junior High School seventh- and eighth-graders sat attentively in the school’s gym Wednesday morning while New York Times best-selling author Caitlin Alifirenka told them her story.

Every year, the junior high school selects summer reading books for each grade level, and this summer, seventh- and eighth-grade language arts teachers Caitlyn Burton and Kathy Englund picked the same one – “I Will Always Write Back.”

“It was just a really powerful story,” Burton said. “We felt we wanted our kids to obviously look in their community and look to those who needed help, but also have a more global perspective.”

In the dual memoir, Alifirenka and Martin Ganda, with help from writer Liz Welch, tell the story of how their penpalship changed both of their lives. Alifirenka grew up in a middle class family in Pennsylvania and Ganda grew up in poverty in Zimbabwe. As the two got to know each other better through Alifirenka’s pen pal assignment in middle school, they relied on each other.

Burton and Englund applied for a grant through the Cary 26 Education Foundation, which has supplied money for other author visits, field trips and even a 3-D printer in the past, President Kurt Kaise said. They were awarded $1,800 to fly Alifirenka from her suburban Philadelphia home to the northwest suburbs.

“We don’t get to see our grants in action much,” Vice President Debbie Lazarski said.

Alifirenka gave two separate presentations Wednesday to seventh- and eighth-graders. Before she started, she told the teachers she wanted the students to broaden their horizons.

“I just want [students] to understand they can be more than one thing,” Alifirenka said.

Alifirenka is an emergency room trauma nurse by profession.

“I figure in the emergency room that’s where people are at their worst, so that’s where I can help them the most,” Alifirenka said.

She elaborated on her and Ganda’s story throughout the hourlong presentation, saying she initially thought Zimbabwe would be like something out of National Geographic and how she needed to send Ganda a disposable camera just so he could send her a photo of himself. Eventually, Alifirenka’s family helped her to find a four-year scholarship for Ganda at Villanova University. He went on to earn a dual degree in mathematics and economics and an MBA from Duke. Ganda now is a CEO and considered one of Africa’s rising stars.

Alifirenka ended her discussion by saying it was up to the students to make the world a better place, and their teachers said they hoped to assist in that goal.

The students had the options of writing to a local assisted living community or to victims of Hurricane Irma, Burton said. They also collected food for the Cary-Grove Food Pantry.

“We’ve had a lot of positive reactions,” Burton said. “I think that a lot of students were just surprised by what [Ganda] had to do, and what he had to go through just to go to school and just to have food and clothes.”

“I Will Always Write Back” has been nominated for the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award in 2018. The annual award is given to the author of the book voted most outstanding by students in grades four through eight in participating Illinois schools, according to the award’s website.

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