By Chris Maza
Birchland Park Middle School seventh grader Ryan Cabrera enjoys a laugh with a veteran while handing out letters he and his classmates wrote at a ceremony at the Soldiers’ Home.
Reminder Publications photo by Chris Maza
HOLYOKE – As part of a National Park Service initiative and National Nursing Home Week, students from Birchland Park Middle School were part of a ceremony at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke to commemorate the service of the home’s residents.
The visit to the home was the culmination of a yearlong program in which seventh grade students had been participating called Park for Every Classroom. The program, led by the Springfield Armory in conjunction with the Amherst-based Veterans Education Project and the Soldiers’ Home, is the first of its kind in Western Massachusetts and is aimed at building collaborations between schools, national parks and historic sites, and veterans’ agencies for service-based learning projects.
Twelve students, whose seventh grade geography teacher Harriet Kulig, a Holyoke resident, called a “representative sample” of the 100 students who took part in the program, spoke to veterans assembled in the home’s canteen about their experiences as a student and member of their community, as well as their ambitions for the future. They later distributed 100 letters from their classmates.
“For us this program started with a visit to the Armory, which contributed to the defense of our country as well as to Springfield and to the precision manufacturing in this area,” Kulig said. “After that, thanks to the Veterans Education Project, we welcomed a veteran from the Vietnam War to our classroom, who spoke to us about his experiences. As much as the students were interested in his experiences, they were even more interested in what it means to be a veteran.”
It was then, Kulig explained, that she challenged her students to write letters to the veterans residing at the Soldiers’ Home.
A number of students came to the podium and spoke on a wide range of subjects from their family lives to their endeavors in and out of the classroom, such as robotics programs, the band and Boy Scouts. Bridget Lavallee said she had dreams of being in a rock ‘n’ roll band and using her music to help inspire others. Maddie O’Shea said she hoped to be able to serve her country in a different way than residents at the Soldiers’ Home did by becoming a member of the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team.
“Not only do I appreciate what our country’s athletes do, I am extremely thankful for everything our servicemen and women have done for our country in the past and present,” O’Shea said.
Rob Wilson of the Veterans Education Project pointed out that close ties between the Soldiers’ Home and the Armory already existed and the Park for Every Classroom program helped strengthen those while adding a new element by involving the area’s youth.
“Some of the veterans here today even worked at the Springfield Armory,” he said. “The fact that the school took the time to be here today speaks volumes of the commitment the school and East Longmeadow has for our veterans.”
Paul Barabani, superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home, also commended the school for its involvement in the program.
“Events like today that involve our youth will help maintain the legacy created by these veterans,” he said. “The commitment we’re seeing today from our youth is the foundation of America.”
The Birchland Park students were presented with the Hooah Award by the Soldiers Home, signifying that the school was part of the Soldiers’ Home family. Park Ranger Jennifer Zazo also received the award on behalf of the Springfield Armory. In addition to the Hooah Award, Assistant Principal Conor Martin accepted a handcrafted wall clock that was built by a resident of the Soldiers Home.
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