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The letters arrived in early January 2013.

"Dear second grade student,

"I am eight years old. I am in second grade. My teacher’s name is Ms. Morgiewicz. My birthday is June 14th. I have brown eyes and I wear glasses."

To anyone else, the letters would have seemed mundane. But to Abbey Clements, a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they were perfect.

It had been one month since a 20-year-old loner had marched through the halls of her school and unleashed his semiautomatic rifle on a first-grade classroom, killing 20 children ages 6 and 7 and six adults.

Clements, 48, remembers pulling two children from the hall and locking them in her classroom with the rest of her students. The sounds of shots that killed a classmate, a sibling, a co-worker, a friend, were projected directly into the room — the intercom had been left on.

In the weeks that followed, a largely unknown school in a largely unknown Connecticut town was thrust into the international media spotlight.

Click here to read more Sandy Hook letters »

Clements and other teachers were flooded with letters of condolence from schools across the country, but it didn’t feel right to remind her 7- and 8-year-old students of the trauma.

“I was so sorry I couldn’t share them with the kids,” she said. “But we needed to get back into the routine of school."

Weeks later, when she received a manila envelope postmarked from a Florida town she’d never heard of, she expected more of the same.

But the messages, handwritten in deliberate, round letters, talked about family, school and hobbies.

There was no mention of the shooting. It was the perfect distraction and the perfect way to teach a writing lesson.

“I thought it was the greatest thing. They just wanted to be pen pals,” she said. “The kids loved it. They were so excited they hung them up.”

The letters were sent from the second-grade class at Immokalee Community School, a charter school, taught by Ann Marie Morgiewicz.

Related story: Sandy Hook denier pleads not guilty after death threats made to parent of victim

The students came up with the idea after Morgiewicz, 45, told them about the shooting. The plan was to send paper snowflakes. A few students would write letters.

But after talking among themselves, the students realized they all wanted to do something special to help.

“We didn’t have to if we didn’t want to, but we said, ‘You know what, this is a good way to make them feel better,’” said David Hernandez, 11, who was in Morgiewicz’s second-grade class when the tragedy struck. “We felt if we wrote letters to these people, they would know we actually cared and were really sorry about what happened.”

Morgiewicz told her class not to expect a response. She correctly assumed the school would be inundated with mail.

So when a thick envelope appeared in her mailbox weeks later, she was overjoyed. So were her students.

“The kids who died must have had friends who loved them a lot, so their friendships must’ve broke when they perished,” said Tony Morales, 11, who was in the second-grade class. “When we got the letters back, I was really happy because we were their pen pals so they had a friend they could trust in.”

Tony recalls telling his pen pal he “wished he could be in this state, safe and sound, instead of being over there, so he’s not terrified.”

Related story: Sandy Hook dad fights lies about murdered son

The correspondence continued through the year. The children exchanged pictures and wrote about what they were learning in school, what extreme heat and cold was like and whether they were rooting for the Ravens or the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

"I love the cute animal stickers you sent me. I know you will do well on your test because you have been learning from your teacher all year! I do many activities at school. I have a dance recital on May 23," wrote Vanessa Hernandez, one of Morgiewicz’s students at the time.

Her pen pal, Audrey, wrote back:

"I am crazy over horses and mythical stuff. I even made up one! It is called a pegacorn. A pegacorn is a horse with a horn and wings. ... My favorite color is hot pink. ... Do you believe in fairies?"

Morgiewicz and Clements soon realized their students were getting more than just a lesson in writing.

The students in Newtown came from predominantly white, upper-middle-class families. All they knew of Florida was vacations to Disney. They didn’t understand the world their Immokalee pen pals came from, where moms and dads spoke little English and scraped by working in the fields.

While the Sandy Hook students wrote about ski trips to Vermont and equestrian summer camp, the Immokalee students told of exciting excursions to the library and community pool.

Related story: Florida woman charged in Sandy Hook parent death threat due in court

But it didn’t matter. They bonded over shared interests in SpongeBob, recess and ice cream.

“Even though they come from dramatically different places, I know if they were in a room together, they would pair right off and talk about Pokémon,” Clements said.

It’s been four years since the first letters were sent, yet each year students in the teachers’ new classrooms still write back and forth. At the end of each school year, the students meet each other over Skype.

In a serendipitous turn of events, both Clements and Morgiewicz now teach fourth-grade students.

Clements moved to another school in Newtown. Sandy Hook Elementary was demolished after the shooting. When it was announced it would be rebuilt on the same site, she decided it would be too painful to return. As it is, not a day goes by when she isn’t reminded of what happened, she said.

For Morgiewicz, who keeps her class photos on display in her bedroom, the tragedy hit home.

When she moved to a new classroom at the beginning of this school year, she spent three days cleaning out the closet so it would fit all her students. During school-wide shooter drills, Morgiewicz teaches her students to stay silent in the closet and play dead.

Related story: Sandy Hook denier arrested after death threats made to parent of victim

She covered the windows in printed sarongs and student artwork so a potential shooter wouldn’t be able to see inside. A security system was installed at the school’s entrance a few years ago at Morgiewicz’s request.

Despite the changing of grade levels, classrooms and schools, the teachers have not only maintained a relationship between their students, but also with each other. They have forged a bond so deep that each is moved to tears when speaking about the other.

“She’s like a sister I’ve never met,” Morgiewicz said.

“She’s my hero. Even though all this time has gone by, if I think too much about it,” she said, hesitating, “I’ll get choked up.”

Clements recalls telling her students:

“Can you believe you can develop a relationship with someone without ever having met them in person and still love them like a dear friend?’”

On Dec. 14, 2016, Clements did something she never had done before. She went to work on the anniversary of the shooting. She said it was because she had something to look forward to.

A manila envelope had just arrived.

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