Rena Becher knows there are moments in life when a simple gesture that says “I’m thinking of you” can forge an immediate bond between people.
As proof, she refers to the special thank you letters that American soldiers serving overseas have sent to the fifth-grade students at St. Simon the Apostle School in Indianapolis.
The fifth-grade teacher mentions how quiet her students become when she reads them one of the letters, such as this one from an American soldier serving in Afghanistan, who had received a “care package” that the children had helped to make.
“Sitting in our small slice of heaven in Afghanistan, it started to be a looming notion that the holidays were all just going to meld into our daily routine,” the soldier wrote. “When our chaplain came down with your packages though, it moved me. Many a day I will catch flashes of news during chow and see such a distaste for this war that it makes me feel more than a little dissension toward us soldiers that have to fight it.
“However, the packages we received gave me renewed faith and a happiness that I truly haven’t felt since I was a child. The gifts you send us aren’t of candy, but of love and hope, which are truly what we needed. I could never tell you how much it means to us.”
The soldier signed his name under the words, “From the bottom of my heart, my deepest regards.”
‘It gives them a sense of the world’
That special connection between students and soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bosnia and other parts of the world has been a key part of the faith-based life lessons at St. Simon School for more than six years.
It’s an approach that can also be found at other Catholic schools in the archdiocese, including the schools at St. Luke the Evangelist, St. Matthew the Apostle, St. Monica and St. Pius X parishes, all in Indianapolis.
“It gives them a sense of the world beyond St. Simon,” Becher says. “We’re involved in this because it’s a way of giving to others, which God wants us to do. I don’t look at it just from a patriotic standpoint, but from a religious standpoint, too. This is our faith. This is a service we can do.”
The service is rooted in the fifth grade at St. Simon School because that’s the year when students study American history—and the American soldiers fighting in wars today are part of that history. It’s also a service touched by fun and joy, led by the three fifth-grade teachers at St. Simon School—Becher, Mary Beth Keiser and Laura Legault.
At Halloween, Keiser challenged the fifth-grade students to bring in their excess candy from trick-or-treating to give to the soldiers. The 77 students turned in more than 800 pounds of candy.
“It was a really big deal in our class,” recalls John Morrissey, a fifth-grade student. “We all crowded around as our boxes of candy were weighed. I actually gave all of my candy, except for a piece or two.”
At Christmas, the children write cards, collect toiletries ranging from lip balm to foot powder, and decorate the boxes for their gifts.
In March, they collect donated Girl Scout cookies for the soldiers.
“I just like helping the soldiers,” says Susanna Tsueda, who brought in a large quantity of Girl Scout cookies. “And I like it that they send back notes for the things we send.”
The students’ reactions continually touch their teachers.
“They really understand that it’s an amazing thing that we’re helping people that they’re never going to meet, but we’re touching their lives in a small way,” Legault says. “And we’re grateful to the soldiers because they’re serving our country, and they’ve volunteered to do that.”
A tearful encounter and a special plan
The efforts by the children show them that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
The children’s collections at St. Simon School are also part of a major project that has been led for the past eight years by a remarkable woman.
When the United States went to war against Iraq in March of 2003, Diane Spaulding of Indianapolis soon joined an effort by the Salvation Army to send care packages to American soldiers serving in Iraq.
After the Salvation Army effort ended a few months later, Spaulding faced a crossroads moment when she saw a man crying as she walked through the Hillcrest Country Club in Indianapolis, where she is a member.
“One of our maintenance men was in the hallway, and he had tears in his eyes,” Spaulding recalls. “I went up and asked him about it. He said his son was being shipped out to Iraq. His son had a wife and a child. I asked him, ‘What can we do?’ He asked me to pray for his son Jeff. I went home and talked to my husband, Doug, and said we need to do something. He said to go for it.”
Spaulding’s plan was to continue the “care package” program with the help of friends and country club members, a group that became known as the Hillcrest Guardian Angels.
“The first soldiers were members of the Indiana National Guard out of Terre Haute (which included Jeff),” Spaulding says. “They were there for 18 months. We would get names from other people, too. A mother would call. A grandmother would call, and we would add them to the list. We shipped 1,000 boxes for Christmas of 2004. By then, I realized we needed help.”
St. Simon School became involved through the interest of two women whose children have attended the school—Linda Collier and Meg Paligraf.
“That school has been the most wonderful benefactor to our soldiers,” Spaulding says. “Whatever we ask them, they are willing to do.”
That willingness leads to a story that makes Spaulding laugh every time that she shares it.
An unusual use for toothbrushes
“When we send a box to the soldiers, there’s always a letter from the Hillcrest Guardian Angels explaining who has helped,” Spaulding says. “We provide names and addresses in case the soldiers want to write back. A soldier wrote a letter that said, ‘Thank you for the toothbrushes. I’m using one to brush my teeth and one to clean the sand out of my gun.’ The boys at the school went crazy with that. They said, ‘We need to get more toothbrushes!’
“When we did that collection in 2005, we set a goal of 125 toothbrushes. The week before Thanksgiving, a teacher called and said, ‘We have 1,992 toothbrushes. The boys said they didn’t want those guns to jam.’ When we packed the boxes in the first week of December, we had 4,000 toothbrushes.”
The response was similar from St. Matthew School when American soldiers overseas requested stuffed animals. The soldiers use the stuffed animals to give to the children in the countries where they serve—as a way of showing they care about the people in those countries.
St. Matthew students went to their rooms and their closets and donated about 3,000 stuffed animals one Christmas.
Students at St. Pius X School embraced a plan to send the soldiers Girl Scout cookies in the spring, leading an effort that consistently collects thousands of boxes of the cookies. And children from St. Luke School and St. Monica School have also written cards and collected items for the soldiers.
“What big hearts they have,” Spaulding says of the children. “I’m just so proud of them.”
Her pride extends to the soldiers.
‘Don’t let the bad guys get you’
“I started the project to help our soldiers, support them and let them know they’re not forgotten,” Spaulding says. “They’re our soldiers, they’re far away and they’re faced with death every day. This is just our way of thanking them for the job they’re doing for us. It’s such a small gesture on our part to let them know we’re thinking of them and caring for them.”
The caring continues at St. Simon School, where teachers raised about $800 in February to help offset the considerable shipping charges involved in mailing the boxes around the world.
The care packages that were sent this week to the soldiers are the shipment that Spaulding calls the “Sweetheart Mailing.” Each package includes Girl Scout cookies and belated Valentine cards written by the students—cards that often come with the message, “God is watching you” and “Don’t let the bad guys get you.”
“I think we did well collecting everything,” says John Morrissey, a fifth-grade student. “I hope they like it.”
Sometime in the next few weeks, soldiers will open those care packages and know that someone is thinking of them, and thanking them for what they are doing.
“It’s a service project with faith, and a service project with heart,” says Laura Legault, one of the fifth-grade teachers at St. Simon School. “It means the world to us.”
Printed with permission from The Criterion, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Ind.