A group of Westerville Emerson Magnet School students and their families will soon be hosting Chinese friends they met online through a Global Pen Pal Project started about two years ago.

Emerson Principal Chris Doolittle said when she came to the school two years ago, her personal goal was to increase contact with students around the world.

"We reached out through the Global Pen Pal Project," Doolittle said.

Since then, students have communicated with other students from China, Ecuador, Ireland and Rwanda.

"We're trying to reach out to other schools and our contact in China has been very strong," Doolittle said. "For two years, they've had online interaction and now (participants) will physically get to meet them."

Global Pen Pal Camp Emerson, with Chinese students visiting Westerville and staying with Emerson host families, will be held July 24 to Aug. 4.

Doolittle said the camp will include about 12 Chinese students and 24 Emerson students.

"We have four field trips planned during this time and will end the week with students performing plays for the parents," Doolittle said. "The goal is for the Chinese students to perform their skits/plays in English, and the Emerson students to perform their skits/plays in Chinese."

Kate Mantenieks, a third-grade teacher, said Emerson is a cultures school and in third grade, they traditionally study Asian culture.

She and Doolittle had a mutual friend who had acquaintances who spoke Chinese.

"We started talking on Facebook with Ping Ping Mo," Mantenieks said. "She teaches English to kids in the evening. They go to her for extra tutoring. They would stay until 8 at night and my kids would come early in the morning."

She said they would establish a topic relevant to children involving science and social studies.

"It came down to what do you like to eat," Mantenieks said. "It boiled down to we're more similar than different and what ice cream do you like."

After the online introduction, Ping Ping Mo came to Westerville last summer and helped teach Chinese once a week.

"Then she said let's do a camp next summer (2017)," Mantenieks said.

The lessons continued during the school year via WeChat and another grade joined in.

Shannon Goebeler, an Emerson first-grade teacher, is coordinating summer camp.

"My class joined in with Kate this year," she said. "I have students that came in early on Tuesday morning and we'd talk back and forth, mostly we would discuss things that were cultural."

Among other outings during this year's camp will be trips to COSI, the Columbus Museum of Art, a Columbus Clippers game, an American and Asian grocery store, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and a community play in Westerville.

"After the field trips, we'll reflect on what we learned," Goebeler said. "We would like the kids to put on their own play, a fairly tale version. We'll attempt to get our kids to do it in Chinese. That's our goal."

Parent Anne Goodman said the project is special and epitomizes the Emerson pledge to be a respectful, responsible, global citizen.

Her son Sam, 11, has been involved since he was in third grade and is looking forward to next summer when he goes to China as an incoming sixth-grader.

About nine students are considering making the trip to China next summer with some Emerson staff members, but the trip won't be a school- or district-sponsored trip, but rather, a group choosing to take this trip together, Doolittle said.

Sam Goodman said he has been amazed at how fluently his Chinese friends talk.

"They talk so fast. We're amazed by that, but they're born in that culture. It's their way to speak," he said.

He said he's looking forward to going on field trips with the Chinese students and visiting the Great Wall of China next year.

He has been working odd jobs to help pay his way and created a fundraising page at gofundme.com/sams-5th-grade-quest-to-china.

Fourth-grader Grady Goebeler, 9, said he enjoys learning about the Chinese lifestyle and what they do every day.

Fifth-grader Grahm Casey, 10, said he's looking forward to experiencing the Chinese culture next summer.

He said the language is way different than English.

"It's difficult to learn it," Grahm said. "Once you learn it, it's not difficult."

Grahm's father, Kevin Casey, said he thinks the program has been awesome.

"It's a good experience for the kids," he said. "I hope to go (to China), and we will be hosting this summer as well."

Knowing mandarin Chinese is difficult to teach, Doolittle said, the students would lose it without using the skills.

"We've continued with online instruction after school," she said. "It's all building toward next summer when a group would like to visit our pen pals. It would be an exchange. We will stay with host families from their school."

Anne Goodman said it will be a wonderful experience when families from China visit and when Westerville families go there.