This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website.
WEST GOSHEN — No one would have ever thought in middle school that Caitlin Alifirenka’s best friend would be a stranger from Zimbabwe. After all, she was just an average girl from Hatfield.
However, Alifirenka was offered a pen pal in a foreign country and she was connected with Martin Ganda. Neither knew the correspondence would change both of their lives.
“I never knew going home that starting that first letter would change my life and Martin’s life forever,” Alifirenka said. “And not only our lives, but it changed his family’s life and now we’re spreading our word and changing other people’s lives.”
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The students at East had the opportunity to hear the story from one of the authors as Alifirenka visited Friday morning to talk about their friendship and the letter that started it all.
Seventh-grade Alifirenka could have never imagined how different their two lives were when the correspondence began.
“We had all these same interests except my world was consumed with going to the mall when his was consumed with how to survive,” she said. “That was the very large difference between us that we soon found out.”
The letters continued between each other and it wasn’t until Alifirenka received a letter written on a piece of trash and it jolted her sense of the world.
She began to look at everyone differently.
“I really started to realize about the people around me,” Alifirenka said. “What was happening in their lives? Maybe I shouldn’t be so mean to them… I stopped focusing on all the petty things other kids were focusing on. I started really focusing on the bigger things, like my best friend.”
When Ganda’s father lost his job, his family could no longer afford to send him to school, where he was at the top of his class.
Once Alifirenka and her family found out, they stepped in and sent money for Ganda to receive a scholarship and attend a private school to continue his education.
Alifirenka and Ganda kept writing for six years until Ganda had the chance to come to the United States.
The best friends finally got to meet face-to-face for the first time in 2003.
“I never thought back then that this is where we would be,” Alifirenka said. “We would have one big, extended, multi-cultural, loving family. I would have never thought back then I would have this beautiful blended family that we do now.”
Ganda used the opportunity to attend college at Villanova University and Duke University and now has a job in New York City. He has sent money ever since attending the private school to his family to make sure they were fed and had a roof over their head.
Now, with the money he sends over, he was able to buy his parents a multi-storied home, complete with a refrigerator and a pool.
“Without Martin’s support or without the beginning of one letter and just staying friends and caring about each other, they wouldn’t even have food on their table,” Alifirenka said. “They probably wouldn’t even be alive. It’s a different life for them now.”
The two pen pals still talk all these years later and spend holidays together and surprise each other for dinner. They consider each other a member of the family.
Though not everyone will likely have the same story, Alifirenka and Ganda want to spread the word of how much a simple act of kindness can change somebody’s life.
“One small act of kindness goes a long, long way,” Alifirenka said.