.- Rena Becher knows there are moments in life when a simple gesture that says âIâm thinking of youâ 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 âcare packageâ that the children had helped to make.
âSitting 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,â the soldier wrote. âWhen 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.
âHowever, the packages we received gave me renewed faith and a happiness that I truly havenât felt since I was a child. The gifts you send us arenât of candy, but of love and hope, which are truly what we needed. I could never tell you how much it means to us.â
The soldier signed his name under the words, âFrom the bottom of my heart, my deepest regards.â
âIt gives them a sense of the worldâ
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.
Itâs 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.
âIt gives them a sense of the world beyond St. Simon,â Becher says. âWeâre involved in this because itâs a way of giving to others, which God wants us to do. I donât 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.â
The service is rooted in the fifth grade at St. Simon School because thatâs the year when students study American historyâand the American soldiers fighting in wars today are part of that history. Itâs also a service touched by fun and joy, led by the three fifth-grade teachers at St. Simon SchoolâBecher, 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.
âIt was a really big deal in our class,â recalls John Morrissey, a fifth-grade student. âWe all crowded around as our boxes of candy were weighed. I actually gave all of my candy, except for a piece or two.â
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.
âI just like helping the soldiers,â says Susanna Tsueda, who brought in a large quantity of Girl Scout cookies. âAnd I like it that they send back notes for the things we send.â
The studentsâ reactions continually touch their teachers.
âThey really understand that itâs an amazing thing that weâre helping people that theyâre never going to meet, but weâre touching their lives in a small way,â Legault says. âAnd weâre grateful to the soldiers because theyâre serving our country, and theyâve volunteered to do that.â
A tearful encounter and a special plan
The efforts by the children show them that theyâre part of something bigger than themselves.
The childrenâs 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.
âOne of our maintenance men was in the hallway, and he had tears in his eyes,â Spaulding recalls. âI 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, âWhat can we do?â 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.â
Spauldingâs plan was to continue the âcare packageâ program with the help of friends and country club members, a group that became known as the Hillcrest Guardian Angels.
âThe first soldiers were members of the Indiana National Guard out of Terre Haute (which included Jeff),â Spaulding says. âThey 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.â
St. Simon School became involved through the interest of two women whose children have attended the schoolâLinda Collier and Meg Paligraf.
âThat school has been the most wonderful benefactor to our soldiers,â Spaulding says. âWhatever we ask them, they are willing to do.â
That willingness leads to a story that makes Spaulding laugh every time that she shares it.
An unusual use for toothbrushes
âWhen we send a box to the soldiers, thereâs always a letter from the Hillcrest Guardian Angels explaining who has helped,â Spaulding says. âWe provide names and addresses in case the soldiers want to write back. A soldier wrote a letter that said, âThank you for the toothbrushes. Iâm using one to brush my teeth and one to clean the sand out of my gun.â The boys at the school went crazy with that. They said, âWe need to get more toothbrushes!â
âWhen we did that collection in 2005, we set a goal of 125 toothbrushes. The week before Thanksgiving, a teacher called and said, âWe have 1,992 toothbrushes. The boys said they didnât want those guns to jam.â When we packed the boxes in the first week of December, we had 4,000 toothbrushes.â
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 serveâas 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.
âWhat big hearts they have,â Spaulding says of the children. âIâm just so proud of them.â
Her pride extends to the soldiers.
âDonât let the bad guys get youâ
âI started the project to help our soldiers, support them and let them know theyâre not forgotten,â Spaulding says. âTheyâre our soldiers, theyâre far away and theyâre faced with death every day. This is just our way of thanking them for the job theyâre doing for us. Itâs such a small gesture on our part to let them know weâre thinking of them and caring for them.â
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 âSweetheart Mailing.â Each package includes Girl Scout cookies and belated Valentine cards written by the studentsâcards that often come with the message, âGod is watching youâ and âDonât let the bad guys get you.â
âI think we did well collecting everything,â says John Morrissey, a fifth-grade student. âI hope they like it.â
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.
âItâs a service project with faith, and a service project with heart,â says Laura Legault, one of the fifth-grade teachers at St. Simon School. âIt means the world to us.â
Printed with permission from The Criterion, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Ind.