HUDSON, Ohio — In the late 80s, a pair of 5th grade girls began sending letters back and forth. Little did they know then, but the penpals would forge a friendship spanning 5,000 miles and more than three decades. Friday night, they met in-person for the first time.
When Tania Demer was in 5th grade in Copley-Fairlawn Schools, she was matched by her teacher with another little girl in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
“It was really just fate that brought us together,” Tania explained. “Ms. McGarvey from Copley, she was the one who said, ‘We need to broaden our horizons and let’s connect with a school in Brazil. And I’m going to pair you up and connect you.’”
From South America, Jorgette Vitorino made the first move after signing up with an international youth service and requesting to be paired with a girl her age in the U.S.
“I got her address. It was a little card and it was her address in Ohio. And I wrote this first letter, not knowing if I’d receive an answer or if this address exists. There was no Google Earth,” Jorgette laughed. “Then I got her answer. I was so happy and so excited and that’s how our friendship started.”
The early letters included details about school, schedules and family. They discovered they both loved writing and Tania’s birthday was just 3 days before Jorgette’s. Jorgette sent Tania a tourism guide to Rio De Janeiro with hand written notes highlighting her favorite places.
The two corresponded through their 5th grade year. Then, the letters, cards and gifts never stopped.
It often felt as if they were living parallel lives. Both women became lawyers and they dealt with health concerns about loved ones at the same time.
“She always keeps in touch, no matter how life changes for us,” Tania said. “From being children to teens to college to law school to grownups with families, she always found a way to keep in touch and I loved it.”
Friday night, after several delayed flights, the penpals finally united at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
“It was amazing to finally arrive,” said Jorgette, who flew to Ohio with her husband. “What I think is so special is you can have so many wonderful feelings for a person you have never seen before.”
The couple planned to stay with Tania’s family for several days, meeting her family and exploring Northeast Ohio. The now grown women agree their 5th grade assignment not only brought them lifelong friendship, but also a lesson about humanity.
“I gained the fact that the world is so much bigger and I learned that at a young age,” Tania said. “Good people are everywhere and she’s really one of them.”
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