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Richmond Pen Pal Project Connects Students With Peers At Foot Of Mount Chimborazo

children playing on basketball court
Students at Nicanor Larrea school in Riobamba, Ecuador gather ahead of welcoming a delegation from Chimborazo Elementary in Richmond. The school in Riobamba is located at the foot of Mount Chimborazo. (Photo: Tom and Ali Oristian) Tom and Ali Oristian

This Spring, Richmond students were introduced to their peers at an elementary school more than 2600 miles away. The project was inspired by something they shared, the name of an RPS school and a 20,000-foot mountain in Ecuador. Catherine Komp has more for  Virginia Currents.


Tom OristianI’m going to speak a little Spanish today

Tom Oristian is a software developer. Today he’s taking some time off work to give presentations at Chimborazo Elementary School about Riobamba, Ecuador.

Oristian:   So el nombre de la escuela de tus amigos es Nicanor Larrea. Can you guys say that with me?

StudentsNicanor Larrea.

This school, Nicanor Larrea, is at the foot of Mount Chimborazo, which some scientists say is the closest point on earth to the moon and sun. Oristian demonstrates by sitting on an exercise ball to show how the earth bulges at the equator.

OristianWhere do you think Mount Chimborazo is, is it on the top or the side?

StudentsIt’s on the side.

OristianIt’s in Ecuador, which is named Ecuador because it’s on the…


Now it’s time to see what Mount Chimborazo looks like. Oristian pulls up a street view of the school in Riobamba, then zooms out.

OristianWe can see the mountains in the background.


Tom Oristian and Principal David Peck in front of a mural of Mount Chimborazo at Chimborazo Elementary. Oristian organized a pen pal project that involved seven grades at the school. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)

When Oristian started the PTA Facebook group, they got a lot of friend requests from Riobamba. That sparked the idea of a pen pal project. He knew a little bit of Spanish, so he looked up the number of an elementary school and cold-called.

OristianI wasn’t prepared and I was really nervous and I didn’t think through what I was going to say. So a lady answers on the other side and the first words out of my mouth after she said something very quickly in Spanish were “Tengo algunas preguntas interesantes -- I have some interesting questions.” Which of course, she immediately hung up on me. I just sighed and thought gosh, I can’t believe those were the first words out of my mouth.

Oristian didn’t give up. He practiced his Spanish and dialed up another school -- this time success. Students in seven grades at Chimborazo Elementary were matched with their peers at Nicanor Larrea.

William PerkinsonEveryone got this open?

In Mr. Perkinson’s 5th grade class, students are using Google to translate their letters.

Mariyah Johnson:  Dear Ruth, my name is Maryiah and I'm going to tell you some stuff about me. I play soccer for fun after school. I am ten years old. I like two things in school. The first thing is math. The second thing is reading...

Mariyah Johnson asks her pen pal about her favorite subjects.

Mariyah Johnson: What are you doing in that subject? What are some things you like? How old are you? Sincerely, Mariyah.

Another student Makiyah Jackson wanted to read the translation of her letter. While she hasn’t taken Spanish yet -- pronunciation comes naturally.

(Reading in Spanish)

Chimborazo 5th grader Teyana Murphy-Jones translates her letter using Google. Students wrote more than 200 pen pal letters to Nicanor Larrea students in Ecuador. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE News)

David PeckIn an educational context, as our students ascend to greatness, Mount Chimborazo is a great kind of Benchmark to represent that.

Principal David Peck says they embraced this collaboration -- and the opportunity for students to learn more about what’s behind the name of their school.

Peck: T he pen pal piece is one thing but then the Google translate and the languages, so things that aren’t necessarily our focal point, our intention in this collaborative piece, there are other pieces that are happening that we may not have been cognizant of when before the process started.

The Chimborazo pen pal project has another unique element. Tom Oristian and his family are hand delivering the letters to the students in Ecuador.

(Door knocking)

At the family home, Oristian, his wife Ali and kids Helen, Sammy and Charlotte are getting ready for their flight.

OristianI actually just swung by the school and picked up the last round of letters, so there’s still some compiling to do.

They’re bringing more than 200 letters and many hand-drawn portraits from Chimborazo students.

OristianThis is finally that moment after all the planning and preparing and kind of a period of anxiety, where you’re like, alright, we’re leaving.

Ali OristianOkay, it is 12:38 p.m., we gotta head to the airport.

Nicanor Larrea students play in the courtyard ahead of a program welcoming the Virginia Delegation. (Photo: Tom and Ali Oristian)

We gave the Oristians a copy of Ira Glass’s comic book on how to make radio, showed them how to use their phones to capture audio and in no time, they were documenting their trip to Ecuador.

Tom OristianWe landed, aterrizamos en quito. And now we’re going to speak more  Español.

They landed in Quito, spent a couple of days near Manta and Puerto Lopez. Then it was time for the 12-hour drive to Riobamba.

Tom OristianWe are still scaling this mountain pass, up and down, up and down. Probably about 30 miles from Riobamba. And it’s like we’re driving through a cloud, and it’s a bit of a nail biter.

After an exhausting trip, they arrive safely in Riobamba, the family settled in to get some rest before the big day.

Tom OristianOkay, so we had dinner and we’re back in the hotel… and I just sat down with Charlotte and we talked about the picture of all these students from Chimborazo [Elementary]. What did we talk about Charlotte?

Charlotte OristianHow special I am to be here?

Tom OristianAnd what do we want to do tomorrow with all these faces of Chimborazo?

Charlotte OristianShare the love.

Tom OristianWe carry them in our heart, right? We’re here representing your school, that’s a big responsibility, isn’t it?... It is exciting to have that responsibility. Let’s get some sleep so we can be our best representative tomorrow.

Sammy and Charlotte Oristian (left) hand deliver some of the 200 letters written by Chimborazo Elementary students to their peers at Nicanor Larrea, in Riobamba, Ecuador. (Photo: Tom and Ali Oristian)

They rise early the next day, overnight rain creating a misty morning. After some fruit and eggs, the family gathers up the letters and heads to Nicanor Larrea.

Tom Oristian: Let’s watch the cars. We’re just a few blocks away…

Charlotte and SammyI’m nervous, I’m also excited! Me too, we’re so nervous and so excited.

Ali Orisian: Okay, we’re at the gate and here comes someone to let us in. Buenos días!

The family is greeted by the school’s principal, Director Jose Luis Cabezas. They present him with a framed photo of the RPS pen pals, standing in front of a mural of Chimborazo Mountain at the Richmond school.

In the courtyard, hundreds of students line up to welcome the delegation from Richmond, who takes a seat at an elevated table with gourds and a bouquet of flowers. Students share a poem and sing. Then a group performs La Cosecha, the harvest dance.

The Oristians then visit the classrooms to meet the pen pals -- some anxious to try out their English.

StudentHow are you today!

Middle school students at Nicanor Larrea perform La Cosecha, the harvest dance for the delegation from Chimborazo Elementary in Richmond, VA. (Photo: Tom and Ali Oristian)

The morning goes by quickly and the Riobamba students will be let out soon to make way for high school classes in the afternoon.

Oristians and students:  Goodbye!

Before the end of the trip, the Oristians travel up Mt. Chimborazo and take photos to share with the students back home.

Tom OristianDid you read it? I want to send you a great greeting and a hug from my country Ecuador and the city of Riobamba….

A couple days later, the Oristians were back in Richmond with stacks of letters from the students in Riobamba, Ecuador. Chimborazo students excitedly open their envelopes.

Tom OristianI hope we can maintain the relationship with their school. Maybe not every student is going to keep sending letters, but if we can light a fire for some of these relationships and they can live on in their own way, that would be pretty cool.

Nearly all students at Chimborazo Elementary qualify for free and reduced lunch. The student population is nearly 90 percent black. As a white, upper middle-class family, the Oristians recognize their privilege in being able to take a trip to Ecuador, to even have the time to organize a pen pal project. They know that many in Richmond don’t have these opportunities -- but saw the project as a way to build relationships between communities. Chimborazo Principal Peck says it’s easy to take for granted even smaller opportunities, like taking a charter bus or going the beach.

PeckI certainly don't take it for granted in my interactions with my students because some haven’t been to Kings Dominion and stuff like that. So I hope that our students come away with the understanding that the world is bigger than the communities they live in, it's bigger than Richmond City and as they grow, they're cognizant of that so as they aspire to things and professions to get outside of Richmond, explore the world and along with that comes an education that you can't always buy in school.

In addition to the school, Richmond has a park, neighborhood, even a grocery store named Chimborazo. Peck and Oristian say why these places were named after a mountain in Ecuador is a still a mystery -- and maybe one these new pen pals will solve together.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

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