In the day and age of internet messengers and social media, communicating through hand-
written letters is a dying art. But when Cecelia McKinney ’56 posted on a Berea Facebook group asking if Berea students wanted a grandmother as a pen pal, the response was so overwhelming she had to take the post down within a few days.

“I put a little note on the page that I was a grandma, and if students would like a grandma to give them pats on the back or to be sad with them, give me their post office box,” McKinney said.
Of the more than 40 students who replied, she kept regular contact with 14 students. Two Bereans kept exchanging letters with McKinney for all four years of college and beyond.

The expressions of genuine care that McKinney put into the students’ CPO (campus post office) boxes gave them much-needed relief from the challenges of academic life—a reminder that there are people who care.
For McKinney, the epistolary exchanges were ways to give back to a community with which she had a longstanding connection. Her father was born in the city of Berea, and her grandfather laid the foundation stone of Fairchild Residence Hall. When it was time for McKinney to pursue higher education, Berea’s no-tuition promise came to her aid.

Cecelia McKinney with a former student
Cecelia McKinney ‘56, aka Grandma Cecelia, has been sending students handwritten letters for years, offering them the listening ear and encouragement of a stand-in grandmother. In addition to letters, McKinney made special items for some students to commemorate their graduation from the nursing program or other exciting accomplishments that she learned of through her letter communication. Photo by Brooklynn Kenney

McKinney moved to Berea from New York when she was 16 to pursue her dream of becoming an educator, the first from her family to go to college.

“I knew that I was going to be a teacher from the time I was 5 years old,” McKinney said. After graduating from Berea, she moved to Florida with her husband and taught in the same county for 32 years until retirement. Currently, she volunteers her time in kindergarten classrooms and elementary schools. She is relentlessly committed to the welfare of the communities that helped her grow.

“I am very, very attached to Berea,” she said. “Because my parents moved a lot, I usually went to two and sometimes three schools, each grade level. When I went to Berea, it was four years of school. I knew the same people and the same place. I think that’s probably why it’s so special.”

It is still her yearly tradition to visit campus at least once with her daughter. She has published two memoirs that feature her time in her beloved Berea.

Reflecting on her time in Berea, she remembers the professors who welcomed her into their homes and all the people who made her feel she belonged. She also acknowledges her challenges, like the spells of homesickness she endured as a first-year student.

“I was so homesick as a freshman, and my mother was the only one who wrote to me,” McKinney said. “I thought if I enjoyed [her letters] that much, maybe some of the current students will [enjoy my letters], too. If they had a test coming up, I would write, ‘You can do it!’ If they have a paper, I encourage them. I tell them about the kindergarteners I read to, and they tell me about home.”

McKinney translates her love for Berea into the care and kindness she imparts to its students. She wants Berea to be the second home it was for her and contributes to the community however she can.

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