STANTON, AL (WSFA) - Karen Smith and Jennifer Cambas have been friends since they were in the fourth grade, trading letters, photos and gifts, but until recently, the two had never met in person.
The meeting, more than 35 years in the making, happened in Karen's hometown of Stanton, Alabama, when Jennifer, traveling all the way from Texas, came to the state for work. Their friendship is a special one, and it all started because of Barbie.
"I've always loved Barbie dolls," Karen said. "And my mom signed me up with a Barbie magazine, and in one of the magazines it had a place where you could fill out to send in for a pen pal, and I always thought that was something that could be kind of neat."
Karen filled out the form, sent it out, and a couple weeks later she got a call, with the name of a girl from Leming, Texas: Jennifer Cambas. Karen wrote her a letter, not expecting a reply, and the rest is history.
Jennifer, who filled out her pen pal form on the back of a Barbie doll box, said they started with letters, attaching bear and heart stickers to their handwritten notes, before graduating to typed letters, then recorded messages on cassette tapes.
"I would record my message, and I would ask her questions, and I would just tell her about what was going on, and I'd send that over to her, and she'd get to listen to my message," Jennifer said. "And we would just go back and forth."
The two eventually began talking through emails and over the phone, and they even exchanged gifts on holidays and birthdays. The most recent gift came from Jennifer upon her arrival at Karen's home, and it's definitely a blast from the past. Jennifer brought two Pen Pal Barbies, complete with photocopied letters and their high school photographs framed in the boxes.
"I hadn't played with Barbies in such a long time," Jennifer said. "I have a son. I played with cars, I played with trucks."
Karen and Jennifer's friendship has spanned more than three decades, through girlhood and womanhood and even motherhood, as both of them have grown sons. Karen says they've never had an argument.
"We just had a connection," Karen said. "There was just something about the way God brought us together."
Jennifer called their relationship a blessing.
"Friendship is special," she said. "We have family, and family is always special, but a friend, and being able to touch base with somebody from a young age, and never lose touch with someone, is just a special feeling."
Jennifer urges anyone who has or had a friend like Karen to reach out and reconnect.
"You can do this without Facebook," she said. "Pick up a pen and paper."
Now that the two have met, they are already discussing future plans, like Karen heading west for a visit.
"I've never been to Texas," Karen admitted.
For now, though, the two are just ready to enjoy their time together.
"I think we have a lot of catching up to do," Karen said.