Maureen McTaggart on the gains of making penfriends.
Jennifer McCann's postman never has to ring twice. She is always waiting behind the front door to welcome him to sift through the usual cargo of bills and advertising leaflets for a long newsy letter from her penfriend Joanne, which confirms that letter writing is not a thing of the past or confined to the odd thank-you note to distant relatives at Christmas.
Both girls belong to Write Away, a charitable club set up in 1991 to help handicapped children and their siblings communicate with each other using pen and paper, word processor, Braille or audio cassettes.
Write Away was founded by Nicolle Levine, an advisory special needs teacher who had been working with deaf children in primary and secondary schools.
It became obvious to her that pupils with disabilities were socially isolated after several said they didn't know any other children who wore hearing aids, but knew the old man down the road who did.
"I began to appreciate the isolation of being perhaps the only disabled child in a school and decided to bring deaf children together for social events to show them that they were not alone."
It was a case of big oaks growing from little acorns - because as the children's enthusiasm to maintain contact through letter writing grew, so the small group grew into a club which now has more than 3,000 members that include young people with various disabilities.
"These are children who have a poor self-image and are vulnerable to teasing or bullying at school. Letter writing helps break the ice and build up trust and confidence," Levine says. "Teachers tend to teach writing in a fairly false way but Write Away encourages communication in a meaningful way. Because the children are writing to, and receiving replies from real people they are more motivated to read and write."
For a Pounds 2 annual membership fee, Write Away offers a writing pack, termly newsletters, an exchange programme for members who have been corresponding for six months to meet their penfriends, parties and outings for members to meet and a class-match project for pupils with severe learning difficulties where classes are matched to a similar class in another school.
The charity's patron is David Blunkett, Labour's spokesman on education, who has been blind from birth. Nicolle Levine says: "He is a good role model for the children because he has proved they can make it in an anti-disabled world."
Further details from Write Away, 29 Crawford Street, London WlH 1PL. Tel 0171 724 0878