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Southmoreland sixth-graders pen letters to troops

| Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

As the end of the school year drew close, sixth-grade students at Southmoreland Middle School picked up their pencils once more to write letters of appreciation for service men and women at home and abroad.

“Operation Troop Appreciation” was led by language arts teachers Jen Tarasky and Kimberly Schwartz, who have taught at Southmoreland for four and 11 years respectively.

This program was part of an effort to teach students letter-writing skills, as well as compassion and appreciation of troops, particularly those in the community.

Approximately 160 students wrote letters several times throughout the year, beginning in September as a remembrance of the 13th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

Students participated again during the holiday season as part of “Holiday Mail for Heroes,” an effort by the Red Cross to generate letters for wounded soldiers, some of whom were receiving care at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at the time.

Tarasky and Schwartz later showed the students a video of letters being distributed at the hospital that, according to Tarasky, “really affected a lot of the students.”

“This time, we requested that students, faculty and family members send in addresses of veterans serving abroad and at home to whom we could send the students' letters,” Tarasky said. “Many of the letters we sent during the last round were to local veterans, some of whom were family members of the students.”

The letters were sent in packs accompanied with a note to distribute any extras to others who may need a letter to brighten their day.

The students started their letters with a brief introduction, using phrases like “Dear hero” to address the recipient. They were encouraged to write a bit about themselves, some choosing to include jokes.

The letters varied in length from one paragraph to several, but Tarasky said the length was left up to the students, adding that “we wanted (the students) to share that there are people at home thinking of (the soldiers).”

“They wrote very thoughtful letters and expressed thoughts that we didn't expect sixth graders to necessarily know how to express yet,” she said.

One student named Sarah wrote, “Your service has affected everyone in our country. Without you, our lives would be in great danger. Words can't express how thankful I am for the work you do.”

Another student named Kolby wrote a short poem: “Roses are red, violets are blue, we wouldn't be free if it wasn't for you.”

Tarasky and Schwartz told the students they shouldn't expect a response for their letters. However, perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the project was when Schwartz received a response from a childhood friend named Denny, now a veteran of 22 years who had been somewhat of an inspiration for her in developing Operation Troop Appreciation. He wrote to the students, “When I was in a fox hole getting shot at, I would wonder if anyone at home was thinking of me. When I opened a letter from home, it was like opening gold.”

“Between Denny, his father and his brother, their family has over 60 years of service in the military and they're very proud,” Tarasky said. “He loved the letters and the students were very excited to have such a positive response to their work.”

Throughout the year, Tarasky and Schwartz selected books to read with their students reflecting the theme of the project, which was “no matter how big or small you are, you can make a difference.”

“The books we read this year were ‘Number the Stars' by Lois Lowry, ‘Tuck Everlasting' by Natalie Babbitt and ‘The Door in the Wall' by Marguerite de Angeli,” Tarasky said. “Each book focuses on a 10- to 12-year-old character who is a hero, which shows the students that they can make an impact despite their young age.”

When asked about the importance of students seeing children like themselves making a difference in the works they read, Tarasky paraphrased a quote from ‘The Door in the Wall,' which says, “The measure of success is doing the best with what you have.”

“The boy in ‘The Door in the Wall' is disabled, and when he says that he's worried that he is going to let others down, he is told this,” she said. “We wanted students to realize that no matter what their ability level is, they are doing well as long as they are doing their best. This also related to the wounded veterans who come home who still have hope as well.”

“Operation Troop Appreciation was right around Memorial Day,” Tarasky said. “We made sure to remind the students even as they wrote their letters that if they see a veteran, they should be sure to thank them for their service.”

Tarasky and Schwartz said they intend to keep doing this project every year with their students as often as they can.

Kaidia Pickels is a contributing writer.