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A lifelong friendship that began with a letter

MORRIS – It started with an address.

More than three decades ago, in a small German town, 15-year-old Ina Hildebrandt looked over a long list of foreign names and cities – a directory of potential pen pals.

Without rhyme or reason, Ina chose an address belonging to one Lisa Anderson from Seneca, Illinois, who had recently signed up for Seneca High School’s pen pal program because she was interested in Germany.

Little did they know, Ina’s random decision was the start of a something special.

Several hundred letters, 32 years and a few international flights later, Ina and Lisa sat at Lisa’s kitchen table in Morris Wednesday reminiscing about their lifelong friendship, one that began with a letter.

Their names have changed – Lisa is now Lisa Ramsey; Ina is Ina Winter – and they send more emails and instant messages than handwritten letters these days, but their relationship has remained a constant in each other’s lives.

“It wasn’t long after we started writing to each other that we knew we wanted to meet,” Lisa said.

And so they met, just one year after sending their first letter. At age 16, Ina flew halfway around the world so the two could meet and made the made the trek again two years later.

In 1993, when Ina was getting married, Lisa traveled to Germany so she could stand by her side as a bridesmaid.

“We are very close. We have the same sense of humor and can make each other laugh,” Ina said. “I’m here today, and it’s like yesterday that we met. We can understand each other without words.”

It came as no surprise that when Ina was looking for an American exchange program for her teenage daughter, Chiara, she turned to Lisa for help.

Without hesitation, Lisa and her husband, Doug Ramsey, offered to house Chiara for the 2013-14 school year, taking her in as their own.

“We never had any children of our own, so we didn’t know what to expect,” Lisa said. “But we were excited and felt really honored to have her here.”

Chiara spent the past year attending Morris Community High School while living with the Ramseys.

Ina said when Chiara first moved, they had to limit the amount of Skype sessions between the two families because Lisa and Ina couldn’t see each other without crying.

“It was just too emotional for us,” Ina said. “We had to stop video messaging in the beginning.”

With the end of the school year, Ina and younger daughter, Felicia, travelled to Morris to spend the week with the Ramsey’s, leaving Thursday to return to Germany.

Ina said she loves spending time in the small towns – like Seneca and Morris – when she’s visits, but the group traveled across the country this time, packing in as much sightseeing as possible.

They visited Chicago, where they looked out of Willis Tower and were interviewed by Chicago TV stations, after glass in the viewing deck shattered.

Next was a 10-hour road trip to New York, where they gazed at Niagara Falls and bought ‘I love New York’ t-shirts. Then a short trek into Canada, where they stayed for about 30 minutes before crossing back into the U.S.

Their vacation culminated Wednesday with a family dinner to send off the Winter family.

Lisa doesn’t know when she can make it to Germany next, but finds comfort knowing Ina is always just a letter or an email away.

“It’s like I always say,” Lisa began emotionally. “I’ve got a another family in Germany, and she’s got a family here.”

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