Riley Wong, 7, shows his pen pal, Smudge, the picture he drew for her at Pasado’s Safe Haven. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Riley Wong, 7, shows his pen pal, Smudge, the picture he drew for her at Pasado’s Safe Haven. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Kids make connections with critters through pen pals program

Pasado’s Safe Haven near Sultan invites children to write to a turkey, a goat, a cow and a rooster.

Seven-year-old Riley Wong has made some special pen pals during the pandemic — a sparkle-loving turkey, a cuddly cow, a deep-thinking goat and, well, a cocky rooster.

About a year ago, Riley signed up for Pasado’s Pen Pals program at Pasado’s Safe Haven, a sanctuary in Sultan for formerly abused and neglected animals.

Each year, thousands of kids visit Pasado’s Safe Haven through school field trips to meet the animal residents as a way to create connection and understanding that all animals deserve love and protection. But when COVID-19 hit, trips to the sanctuary were shut down.

“We work with schools to help educate youth on the importance of being kind to animals,” said Brenna Anderst, the education and advocacy director for Pasado’s Safe Haven. “We talk about where those animals came from, what their rescue stories are and really shine a light on who they are as individuals — primarily with animals that they might not normally connect with, like a pig or cow or a chicken.”

Pasado’s Pen Pals was Anderst’s idea. Even though the sanctuary established virtual tours because of the coronavirus, she wanted another way for the kids to connect with the animals as their friends. Why not have the kids write to some of them as pandemic pen pals?

“What’s so fun about this program, is the fact that kids are really able to connect with animals and see animals as their friends,” she said. “It allows kids to practice their penmanship, their writing skills and their spelling, and then they send it off to an animal who doesn’t even judge them.”

The animals at Pasado’s Safe Haven have received more than 1,000 letters since Pasado’s Pen Pals launched a year ago.

Anderst said her goal is to receive letters from all 50 states. So far, she’s at 38.

In addition, Pasado’s friends have also received letters from as far away as Singapore, India, Italy and Ireland.

“It’s really exciting to see how much the reach of this program has grown, “Anderst said, “from just our little town in Washington to all these different places around the world.”

Here’s how Pasado’s Pen Pals works: Your child can choose an animal from Pasado’s pen pal list and write them a letter. In return, they’ll receive a written letter from their pen pal, along with a sticker or two and a photo of the animal. The animal will thank them for writing and tell about their day.

Kids can write letters to Blue Cow, Heart Pig, Stella Turkey, Smudge Goat, Tater Cat and Duke Rooster.

Each animal has a short bio on Pasado’s website, so kids can learn more about their pen pals.

Smudge writes that he likes to spend his days “relaxing in the sunshine, thinking about important issues like wildflowers, unicorns and world peace” and “would love to talk to you about these things if you choose me to be your pen pal.”

Tater admits that people “still make me a little nervous, but I am trying really hard to overcome my fears so that I can find a home of my own,” adding that “being a pen pal is a good chance for me to practice.”

Stella writes that her favorite things are “sparkles, bright colors, sweet treats and, of course, making new friends” and that she “can’t wait to have a pen pal of my very own.”

Letters can be sent to P.O. Box 171, Sultan, WA 98294. Please include the child’s first name and age.

Riley Wong, of Shoreline, is what Anderst calls a “repeat pen pal.” Most kids write one letter and they’re done. But Riley has written several letters to all of the animals.

“I have 13 right now,” he said. “I might get two more from Stella and Smudge.”

He likes that the animals send him a postcard featuring their picture. He has kept every single one.

“It’s an excellent way to get kids motivated to practice writing, especially when they’re in grade school,” said Jennifer Wong, Riley’s mom. “It’s actually a complex skill because you’re stringing together your letters, your sentences, your ideas. His teacher says it’s one of the skills that kids struggle with the most with they first learn to write.”

Wong also is a fan of Pasado’s Safe Haven’s virtual kids activities. “He isn’t getting enough socio-emotional education, especially when addressing animal welfare,” she said.

She said activities like “Circle Time,” which is available at 10 a.m. Saturdays on Facebook, helps supplement Riley’s school curriculum.

Now that some COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, kids can meet their pen pals. Pasado’s Safe Haven is offering limited tours.

On Feb. 19, the Wongs made the trip to Pasado’s Safe Haven so that Riley could personally deliver letters he’d written to Stella and Smudge.

Riley said it was fun to meet his pen pals and read his letters out loud to them. Smudge wanted to eat the letter, and Stella was making lots of noises as he read.

Also, it was nice to just get out of the house.

“I haven’t been in a really long car trip in a while,” he said. “Because of the coronavirus we don’t really go anywhere.”

But he said he’ll probably stick to mailing his letters from here on out to avoid feeling carsick. It’s a long drive from Shoreline to Sultan.

Was it worth it, even if he got carsick? “Yeah.”

Anderst said one of the draws of having a pen pal right now — whether it’s with an animal or not — is that it’s a way to make connections without Zoom.

“We’ve got virtual tours and virtual programming, but I think what people really leaned into with the pen pal program is the fact that it was different,” she said. “It actually brings you away from the computer.

“It’s another way of getting people connected in this time of real-life separation that many of us are feeling. Good vibes come out of that.”

Want to help Pasado’s friends? Donations made to the organization help Pasado’s Safe Haven fight to end animal cruelty in addition to supporting the well-being of the animals that live at the sanctuary. Donations can be made at www.pasadosafehaven.org/donate.

Sara Bruestle: 425-339-3046; sbruestle@heraldnet.com; @sarabruestle.

If you go

Pasado’s Safe Haven near Sultan is home to more than 200 animals — most of which were rescued as victims of cruelty or neglect — including dogs, cats, pigs, goats, sheep, cows, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, ducks and chickens. Limited tours available. Cost is $35. Children 2 and younger get in free. Call 360-793-9393 or go to www.pasadosafehaven.org.

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