Archive for Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Contributing to a cause

November 21, 2007

Remember, honor and teach -- it's the simple but powerful mission of the "Wreaths Across America" project.

Every December, thousands of green holiday wreaths tied up with red ribbon are placed on the rows of white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery to remember and honor the nation's veterans, and this year, students at Basehor Elementary School will be able to say they helped contribute.

"I grew up in a Navy family," said fifth-grade teacher Michelle Ablard, who decided to have the students participate in the project as a Veteran's Day activity. "I teach American history, and my goal is to teach the kids love for the nation."

The project began about 16 years ago when Morrill Worcester, president of the Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine, began donating wreaths and driving them to Arlington. The nonprofit "Wreaths Across America" organization with its mission -- Remember the fallen, honor those that serve and teach our children the value of freedom - was formed last year in response to the outpouring of people wishing to help.

Wreaths are now donated to state and national cemeteries across the country, but the main event remains in Arlington. There, hundreds of people gather on Dec. 15 to place wreaths, take the time to look at the names on the headstones and perhaps learn something about the people attached to those names.

Ablard heard about the project through the Veterans of Foreign Wars and decided to use it as a multifaceted teaching tool. The students kicked off their lesson by making a DVD for others to view.

"They shared their thoughts about freedom and what veterans have done for us as a nation," she said. "We also learned about national cemeteries and why we have them, and they wanted to help."

Then, a bake sale frenzy began. Ablard sent home notes to fifth-graders' parents asking them to have their child do an odd job around the house to help buy cookies or have them help bake two dozen treats to bring to school for the bake sales. The students set up shop in Ablard's classroom, and the entire school was invited during reading block to purchase treats at 50 cents a bag. The response from the students grew and grew with each sale, and they raised more than $400 one day.

"My room smelled like a brownie exploded," Ablard said. "It was a disaster. But, I told them (the students), 'this is the best disaster I've ever seen.'"

But, what really touched the teachers is the money the students donated. After picking out their treats and realizing they had money left over, even the youngest students asked if they could just donate the rest of it, Ablard said. It showed the children understood their nickels and dimes would turn into a wreath placed on a veteran's grave -- a symbol of appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice.

"I have watched the pride on my students faces as they have worked to contribute to a cause that is much greater than themselves," Ablard said in an e-mail she sent across the district. "I think they get it!"

The fifth-graders have been estimating how much money they raised from each bake sale, then counting to see who came the closest. This past Friday, the students were excited to estimate and count the entire donation jar including, profits from the bake sales along with donations from family, friends and district faculty.

After estimating how much was in the big jug, the students chanted, "dump, dump, dump" as the jug was tipped over and a mountain of coins and bills spilled onto the table. Ablard, along with the two other BES fifth-grade teachers, Rebecca Hill and Diana Manford, counted the money, calling out each stack of $25 for students to write down and keep track on small marker boards.

Students continued to bring money up to the table to donate as it was being counted, and teachers asked them questions about the importance of remembering and honoring veterans.

Each wreath costs $15 and an original goal of $1,095 was set so that each of the 73 fifth-graders could donate a wreath. Another fifth-grader was recently added bumping the goal up to $1,110. Students simulated a drum roll as the teachers announced the grand total -- $887.31. Math skills were then used to figure out that they would be able to donate 59 wreaths. The children agreed that based on their past sales, they could probably make their goal by the end of the fundraiser Tuesday. The count Tuesday afternoon revealed the students had surpassed their goal, raising $1,411.23, enough for 94 wreaths.

Students said they felt, "good, awesome, happy and amazing" about what they were doing.

"We're trying to honor veterans because they fought for our rights and freedom," fifth-grader Joe Schmaltz said.

"We're giving back to the ones who gave us so much," fifth-grader Jenna Espinoza said.

Ablard, who this week was named the winner of Basehor VFW's Citizenship Education Teacher Award, will travel to Arlington this year to help place wreaths at noon Dec. 15. Patriot Guard riders will escort the tractor-trailer full of wreaths on its five-day journey from Harrington, Maine, to Arlington beginning Dec. 9. The truck is set to arrive in the Washington, D.C., area on the evening of Dec. 14.

Ablard said she hopes her students' efforts have encouraged others to remember, honor and teach.

"We thought it would be neat that even though they're clear on the East Coast, that somehow the little town of Basehor, Kansas, could get involved," she said. "It's like a spark. Once it's lit, it spreads. It's pretty exciting."

For more information about "Wreath Across America" or to sponsor a wreath, visit Donations for this year must be made by Friday, Nov. 23.

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