Nine-year-old Jamari took stock of his new friend, 10-year-old Jenny, in her red and black plaid jumper and blonde-brown hair pulled back.
"I have black eyes. You have green eyes. I have brown skin. You don't," he sagely observed.
"I'm obsessed and I love Minions," she later professed.
"This is weird," Jamari squealed, "but me too!"
They had been corresponding since the start of the school year, exchanging letters mostly. On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-December, Jamari and Jenny finally had the chance to bond in person over their shared adoration for those tiny, yellow scamps who reappear in an animated movie every year or so, wearing overalls and goggles and babbling incessantly in gibberish.
There was a time when they likely never would have met. Jamari goes to Chicora Elementary in North Charleston. Jenny attends The Charleston Catholic School downtown. Then Dylann Roof walked into the basement of Emanuel AME Church and gunned down nine black parishioners as they studied the words of the Bible. Roof, a self-described white supremacist who said he wanted to trigger a race war, was convicted of 33 federal charges in December. He now faces a death sentence or life in prison.
WINGS for Kids, an education nonprofit that helps students cultivate social and emotional intelligence, created Kindred Kids in response to the June 2015 massacre. The program aims to combat racism by fostering friendships between children of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds, children like Jenny and Jamari who might otherwise never cross paths.
The program pairs students at predominately black and low-income North Charleston schools, where WINGS already runs after-school programs, with students from mostly white and upper-middle class private schools as year-long pen pals. Every other week they exchange letters or videos, sharing bits and pieces of their lives.
"They're bonding with kids they typically wouldn't hang out with during out of school time," said WINGS for Kids CEO Bridget Laird. "It's important to develop friendships with people who are different from you. If not, life's not interesting. It's also important to understand other kids so you can step into the shoes of them. As you grow up and develop, it's easier to have a sense of empathy."
The typical school day, Laird said, is "jam-packed," leaving teachers with little time to talk to their students about race and racism between lessons on reading and math. But WINGS integrates these touchy topics into its curriculum. By the end of the school year, Kindred Kids pen pals will be prepared to discuss racism and their own experiences dealing with prejudice.
Teaching children how to empathize with people who are different from them, Laird said, is key to fighting the scourge of racism and preventing future tragedies.
“Dylann Roof was clearly a child that did not have a social awareness," Laird said. "He did not have the capacity to step into the shoes of somebody different from him. He automatically believed that African-Americans were one way, they were all that way and that he had to take that anger out on those individuals."
Kindred Kids began last school year with fourth-graders at Mason Preparatory School and North Charleston Elementary. This school year the program has expanded to include fourth-graders at Chicora and Charleston Catholic. Laird said she wants to bring the program to students at Burns Elementary next fall.
Fourth-grade pen pals from Chicora Elementary and The Charleston Catholic School met for the first time last month. Chipper and bubbling with energy, they struggled to sit still on blue mats in the Chicora cafeteria on a Tuesday after school as they eagerly described the things they've learned about one another, their differences and their similarities.
Zanquel, age 10, for example, learned his pen pal, Shea, age 9, "likes to play instruments." Through her correspondence with Zanquel, Shea has gathered that her pen pal likes football and basketball "a lot."
Sam Duncan, a social studies and Spanish teacher at The Charleston Catholic School, watched the fervor unfold from a chair on the edge of the cafeteria. When the opportunity arose to enroll his Charleston Catholic students in the Kindred Kids program, Duncan jumped on board.
"Hatred is something that is learned," Duncan said. "And if these kids can get out into an environment where there is no hate and they realize that somebody from a different background than me actually has the same interests as me, we can curb some of these problems by showing people that we're all the same at a very early age."
"If we could all go back to the fourth grade," he added, "the world would be a better place."