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When Kathleen Abrass reminded her fourth and fifth grade class at Avondale Elementary School what was coming, they couldn’t help but get excited.

“I told them last week, ‘OK, next Friday, we’re having our pen pal party,’ and their faces lit up immediately,” Abrass said.

And by the time the party happened at the Columbus school last Friday, the kids were at a fever pitch. Around 70 Blue Jackets employees and their corresponding students attended the get-together that serves as the culmination of a relationship that lasts throughout the year at the elementary school the organization has partnered with for the last 13 years.

There are plenty of ways the relationship plays out throughout the year, but the highlight is the annual pen pal program. Blue Jackets employees and the fourth and fifth graders at Avondale exchange letters throughout the season, and meet twice. During the winter, the students visit Nationwide Arena for a get-together that features lunch, activities on the concourse and the Fan Zone, and skating in the OhioHealth Ice Haus.

Friday’s visit to Avondale ends the season and is the one time CBJ pen pals visit the school. Jet’s Pizza catered the event – who doesn’t love a pizza party at school? – before CBJ employees and their pen pals did a variety of activities including street hockey, basketball, coloring, visits with Stinger and more.

"My pen pal went crazy,” said Erin Claybaugh, event presentation coordinator for the Blue Jackets. “She ran up to me and gave me the biggest hug and kept saying how she was so excited to finally see me. As someone who is the youngest in their family, I never really got to experience the younger sibling thing – this is something that feels like I get to have a little sister and be there to make her day better.”

For a teacher like Abrass, who is set to retire this spring after 28 years at Avondale, seeing the pen pal relationships grow throughout the year as part of the Adopt-A-School program is a rewarding part of the job.

“The best part about it is when the day comes where we get the envelope of letters because they are just so excited,” Abrass said. “It’s almost like they’re about to open a gift. They get their letters, we all wait until everyone has their letter, and then I say, ‘OK, go ahead and open them.’ They read their letter and then they want to go share their letter with friends. Sometimes there are stickers inside and pictures and things like that.

“I love that. It stays with everyone, just wanting to show who they are, and that lays the foundation for the relationship the rest of the year.”

For principal April Knight, who has been at the school for the entirety of the partnership with the Blue Jackets, the pen pal program offers a unique opportunity for students to expand their horizons.

The program is more than just writing letters, it's additional development for valuable writing and communication skills. Equally as important, it's a connection that shows students that they're valued; Avondale is located in the economically disadvantaged Franklinton neighborhood, and having someone from the outside take an interest in the students means a lot.

“The students have the opportunity to meet and engage, and it’s with people who are not Avondale people, who are not family,” Knight said. “That’s really important for the kids to have those opportunities to grow socially. It’s just an exciting time."

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While the pen pal relationship is an important part of the partnership, it’s far from the only connection throughout the year. Students from kindergarten through third grade visit Nationwide Arena each Halloween for a trick-or-treat party through the administrative offices, with Blue Jackets staffers donning costumes for the event.

The Blue Jackets also organize two events during the school year – Donuts with Dad and Muffins with Mom – that aim to encourage parental involvement. This past school year, more than 200 parents and students took part, and the Lady Jackets – the significant others of CBJ players – attended to help serve breakfast.

“It’s incredible,” Knight said. “To have the opportunity to work with a professional sports organization is something in and of itself. But the fact that it’s all-inclusive with all of the students – even when we go to the arena for trick-or-treating, my special needs students are included – that’s something that’s really special for me. It’s a unique partnership.

“When I first came here in 2011, I was trying to explain to the staff what this partnership is like, and they couldn’t fathom it. They had no understanding until we got started with the year, and they have all been amazed. It’s just remarkable that there is such a dedication to education. It’s one of the pillars for the Blue Jackets Foundation, and just the fact that Avondale is an important part of the program that the Blue Jackets do is incredibly meaningful.”

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