Student visits South Dakota pen pal

Naples resident Olivia Toole, 12, and her dad, Jeff Toole, hold copies of the watercolor paintings they did of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. This summer Olivia visited her pen pal in South Dakota — after raising $600 for the plane ticket. (De Busk Photo)

Naples resident Olivia Toole, 12, and her dad, Jeff Toole, hold copies of the watercolor paintings they did of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. This summer Olivia visited her pen pal in South Dakota — after raising $600 for the plane ticket. (De Busk Photo)

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

NAPLES — Sitting in her home on Labor Day, seventh grader Olivia Toole found it hard to believe that a week ago she was exploring the sites of South Dakota and Wyoming.

Olivia took the trip this summer to meet Allysa, the girl who has been her pen pal since third grade. That was after the young resident of Naples saved her money — a total of $600 — to pay for the plane ticket.

A classroom assignment in third grade turned into four years of correspondence. The two girls do not e-mail or chat on Facebook. They write letters to each other at least once a month.

“We became friends through letters,” Olivia said.

“We sent pictures and gifts and money for birthdays. We wrote once a month. As soon as I got a letter from her, I’d write one,” she said.

“We have been writing about what is going on in our lives, and anything interesting that happens like going back to school and starting a new grade,” she said.

“She usually tells me more detailed information than I do. Like, if she goes to buy a new shirt or new shoes, she writes all about it,” she said.

When they met in person last month, both girls “were a little shy with each other – at first,” Olivia said.

Then, they spent some time together at a fair in South Dakota.

“It was fun. We went on the rides and stuff. We went into the funhouse together,” she said.

“We did not have too many questions to ask each other because we already knew so much about each other,” she said.

The encounter was brief, because Allysa had a big family and a small house. Plus, Olivia and her dad, Jeff, had a checklist of famed sites to see in the Midwest and Wyoming.

Allysa presented her pen pal with a batch of sugar cookies before the two girls went separate ways. The next stop was the Corn Palace in the town of Mitchell, which was a four-hour drive. So, the sugar cookies came in handy.

“We spent one afternoon with her, and then it was the American road trip,” Olivia said.

One of the highlights of the sightseeing trip was Devil’s Tower. Olivia said it was her favorite place, and she loved climbing the massive rocks below the volcanic outcropping. At a restaurant with a view of the Devil’s Tower — which was the backdrop in the ‘70’s movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the owner said only one person had ever ordered mashed potatoes and formed the tower, Olivia said.

She pondered on some differences between Maine and the states she visited last week.

“South Dakota, it was very, very flat. Then, we went to the Black Hills and the Badlands,” she said.

“It was very dry and hot,” she said, adding that the locals said because of this summer’s rain the landscape was more lush than usual.

“The trees were getting slowly eaten by the beetles, and the trees were dying,” she said.

“All the restaurants served the same things: meat and potatoes, hamburgers,” she said.

“They have so many billboards,” she commented.

“We did a lot of driving,” she added.

“I thought I was going to see her (my pen pal) and Mount Rushmore, and my dad planned to see all these other things. It was interesting,” she said.

Topping the list of worthwhile sights was the Vore Buffalo Jump — a pit with layers of ancient buffalo bones, the Crazy Horse Monument that is still being sculpted, and Mount Rushmore where she purchased a T-shirt.

“You would think that going out there, there would be so many buffalo. All the buffalo are raised in farms,” Olivia said.

When the concept of traveling to see her longtime pen pal was first set into action, Olivia’s parents agreed to it if she could save the money to fly there.

“Once she raised the money, I had to take the plunge,” said her mother, Vickie.

“We bought the plane tickets in June. She was adamant, she had to go this summer,” Vickie said.

Saving the money was a long-range goal. Olivia stashed aside her birthday money, got paid for some chores, and ran a lemonade stand in the parking lot of Tony’s Foodland.

“I kept my money in a locked box. Every time I got $100 worth of bills, I would trade in the singles for a big bill. That made it harder to spend,” she said.

Determined to see her pen pal in person, Olivia kept saving her money until she met that goal.

“It has been a long-standing personal quest,” her dad said.

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