SAN ARDO — Students at San Ardo School have spent the past year cultivating friendships with Aera Energy employees that they’ve never met in person. As pen pals, correspondence has not been through text, social media or even email — they’ve only exchanged handwritten letters.
Launched in the fall of 2019, the pen-pal program paired students in Amy Ardouin’s combined fifth- and sixth-grade language arts class with an Aera employee. Throughout the year, the pairs exchanged letters and students learned about the variety of career opportunities available in the oil and gas industry.
An end-of the-year field trip for the pairs to meet in person was canceled due to Covid-19.
“I was so happy to see the emotional connection that these students made with their pen pals,” Ardouin said. “The students really cared about what was going on in their pen pals’ lives and were really interested in learning more about what they did on a daily basis for their jobs. They were very excited to receive the letters.”
This month, a final letter and a photo sent to students closes out the enrichment opportunity, which students have limited access to with distance learning. Aera pen pals came from the company’s locations in Kern, Monterey and Ventura counties and they hope the connections made with students will be long remembered.
Those connections stuck with Thomas Mansfield, a reliability specialist who works at Aera’s San Ardo field, who took part in a similar program more than 20 years ago as a San Ardo School student. He came back as an employee pen pal when the program relaunched this year.
Mansfield saw it as a way to build a positive connection with a child in the community where he grew up and raises his family today.
“San Ardo is a very small town,” Mansfield said. “In my personal experience, I didn’t have much exposure to much of anything outside of the town as a kid. As a pen pal, I knew that my connection to the town would help me relate to my student pen pal a little more.”
Allison, a sixth-grader in Ardouin’s class, said it was fun to write to a pen pal throughout the year. It gave her an opportunity to really get to know someone new and she was surprised they had some common interests.
Fifth-grader Edwin said it was fun to get to know someone new, while Chris, also a fifth-grader, said he enjoyed the experience so much he would enjoy an opportunity to take part in the program again.
Mark Bledsoe, a process manager at Aera, was disappointed he wasn’t able to meet his pen pal, a sixth-grader who loves video games. He expressed his sentiments in his last letter to the student.
“I explained in my letter that life is full of unexpected turns and challenges,” Bledsoe said. “I wanted him to understand there were others all over the world going through challenging times as well. I encouraged him to continue to stay focused on his schoolwork through these times.”
Program coordinators Jennifer Valdez, a production engineer at Aera’s San Ardo field, and Kathy Miller, public affairs coordinator for San Ardo, received an overwhelming response from Aera employees from all areas of the company who wanted to take part.
“Our employees love to share their work with others and the pen-pal program further supports our mission to build stronger communities,” Valdez said. “Working in the oil industry isn’t just about working at the oil fields. There’s a wide range of career options that students might not have considered before. The pen pals were definitely able to plant a seed, expose students to new career options and maybe they will be Aera employees in the future. We hope the final letters from our employees, despite the challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, provided students with a sense of normalcy and stability in times that have proven to be incredibly unpredictable for all of us.”
Bledsoe added, “I have a heart for kids and was afforded many opportunities in my young life that were shaped by people who were older than me. It gave me an opportunity to better my life. If I can be a part of helping someone discover that, that’s a true blessing.”
Ardouin said she plans to continue the program next year in her language arts class and hopes that next year the field trip can take place so students can meet the person on the other side of the handwritten letters.