Daniela Ortega, 10, left, and Shelly Bosques, 10, work Monday on writing their letters to their pen pals in Uganda. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / December 5, 2011)

COSTA MESA — Whittier Elementary School teacher Patrick DeVusser has traveled to Uganda twice, but he hasn't been able to leave the East African country behind.

For the third year, DeVusser's fourth-grade students, as well as some of his former students, are becoming pen pals with their Ugandan peers and learning about strangers a world away.

"It's simply just to have them establish friends 10,000 miles away," DeVusser said.

The Whittier students exchange letters with students in P6, the equivalent of sixth grade, in a private boarding school in Rugarama.

"I think it was a really great thing so people from our country and another country can get together and be friends," said fourth-grade student Diana Hernandez, 9.

For many of the students, friendship is the most important aspect of the program, but they also have a lot — a lot — of questions.

"I like to do it because I like to see what they do and how it is over there," said fifth-grade student Nashlee Ceron,10, "and I like to tell them how I live."

Rafael Arias, 10, said he wants to know if Ugandan students are provided with food at school or if they have to bring their own. The fifth-grade student wants to know what they eat and if they have restaurants like McDonald's.

Fifth-grader Jose Ortiz, 10, inquired about whether they play baseball or soccer.

One of the most popular questions students wanted answered was how many friends their pen pals have and what their families are like.

"I could start writing them longer letters for when they don't have anything to do," fifth-grade student Zurich Bisoso, 10, said in reference to those who may have any or too few writing buddies.

DeVusser started the letter exchange after traveling to Uganda in 2008 and 2009 as part of the Crossing Church's Uganda Outreach Ministry. He plans to go back this summer.

DeVusser said he never pictured himself as a missionary, but by focusing on the education side, he found his niche.

During his first trip, he went to a school and found himself speaking in front of 400 kids.

"It totally blew me away," he said. "It was beyond my wildest expectations."

He got into the classroom the next time, finding a fourth-grade class with 78 kids who did everything on whiteboards, sat at "Little House on the Prairie"-type desks and worked without electricity.

Talking with the teachers, though, he learned it was not about whether they had a budget but how excited they got about education.

britney.barnes@latimes.com

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes