Photos and letters from Anna and Lisa. March 04, 2020. (CTV News Edmonton)

A friendship spanning decades, and thousands of kilometres, began with the discovery of a letter in an apple box in a west Edmonton Superstore.

In New Zealand in 1990, Margaret Wood took her class on a field trip to an apple orchard that also was the site of a packing plant.

Each student had to write a letter looking for a pen pal, and then the owner of the orchard had each student put their letter into an apple box to be sent to grocery stores around the world.

Lisa Cucinotta Sorenson's friend worked in the produce section of the 170 Street Superstore at the time. He found the letter while unpacking apple boxes, and gave it to Cucinotta Sorenson to respond to, saying it’d, “probably be better to come from another girl.”

“The letter had mentioned at the end, 'Please write to me,'” said Cucinotta Sorenson.

She was 20 years old at the time, and the letter came from 8-year-old Anna Kay.

“I always wanted a pen pal,” said Cucinotta Sorenson. “I knew how it was to be an eight-year-old girl wanting someone to write you back.”

She responded to Kay, like the letter asked, and the back-and-forth began.

“I didn’t expect that we’d be corresponding for 30 years, I didn’t actually expect to get more than a couple of letters back,” said Cucinotta Sorenson.

She said the letters were incredible, all about day-to-day life for the eight-year-old in New Zealand.

“I’d write back because she put so much effort into her letter. She’d make her own paper, she’d make her own envelopes, she would send all sorts of New Zealand based gifts and things,” said Cucinotta Sorenson.

Kay wrote about her family, friends, school, and all of her favourite things.

“I could tell from the letters that she was passionate about life.”

In 2006, Cucinotta Sorenson got a phone call in the middle of the night from Kay. She was heading to London, but wanted to stop and visit before heading back to New Zealand.

“I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit nervous, because although we had shared all these letters we had never actually met,” said Cucinotta Sorenson.

“It was odd to just meet somebody and just fall into step with them and carry on conversations that had been happening for all those years on paper face to face.”

“I can’t really describe the feeling, where you’ve known someone, you know what they sound like, it’s just you haven’t hugged them, and you haven’t met them and it’s – it’s one of those things where after those first 20 minutes, everything is normal,” said Kay.

She stayed for a few weeks, and was toured around Alberta and B.C. by Cucinotta Sorenson and her family. They even visited the grocery store where her apple box and letter were found. Kay came back to Edmonton to visit again in 2015.

In February, Cucinotta Sorenson went to New Zealand for the first time to visit Kay. She said meeting Kay’s family was one of the most amazing and incredible moments in her life.

“When we walked in the house and they literally welcomed us with open arms, and I cried. It was just like I suddenly met these people… that I’d been reading their story for 30 years,” said Cucinotta Sorenson.

“It’s just an overwhelming… and you just felt love, which is strange, they were like family but we had never met.”

Kay then introduced Cucinotta Sorenson to Margaret Wood, the teacher who inadvertently brought them together.

“I cried then too, and told her and thanked her for giving me one of the greatest gifts I’d ever received,” said Cucinotta Sorenson.

The age gap that existed when the first letters were sent is gone: Kay grew up and became a teacher, and the pair stayed close friends. And their friendship has evolved with the technology of the last 30 years.

“I’m all about texting. I like the instantaneous messaging, but I love a good old-fashioned letter and card. Although Anna and I do a lot of texting and we facetime, we always send cards,” said Cucinotta Sorenson.

“We’ve been able to keep up a little more, and it’s just made things different, but still the same,” said Kay.

With all the technology of modern day, Cucinotta Sorenson says some of the magic of having a pen pal is lost in the electronic shuffle.

“I think there’s a little bit of a mystery to that, which I think we lose these days, and there’s a little bit of excitement in opening the mailbox and finding a letter there because you don’t know when it’ll arrive,” said Cucinotta Sorenson.

Back in New Zealand, Kay hopes to inspire her own students to find pen pals, and create lifelong friendships of their own.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Geoff Hastings.