Story and photo by Devin Fisher
Lynn Zupanas fought back tears of pride as her students shared the challenges and sacrifices they have endured as military children with Sen. Michael Bennet Nov. 13 following Mountainside Elementary being recognized as an Operation Caring Classroom Gold Star School.
“I don’t think that the military child is appreciated enough for the heroes that they are,” the principal said following Bennet presenting Mountainside with the Armed Forces Foundation award. “They really and truly are my biggest heroes.”
More than 46,000 students in more than 2,300 classrooms participated in this year’s national education initiative that educates students on the fundamentals of Veterans Day, to include the meaning behind the holiday, and stresses the idea that support for the troops and their Families is needed year-round, according to an AFF press release.
Zupanas said she was touched when her students talked about how their jobs at home while their parents are deployed are to “be a responsible person in their Family and step up to the plate.” She said they also talked about how the deployments make them stronger.
Noting they are “amazing kids,” she said Operation Caring Classroom provides resources and materials that give the students an opportunity to celebrate Veterans Day and “feel special” for their service.
“It’s what we try to do all the time,” Zupanas said. “There really isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about the kids’ fathers and mothers and everybody deployed. And so our teachers are always doing thoughtful things to support our students’ emotions.”
The 102 participating schools nationwide participated in Operation Caring Classroom, Nov. 9-13, completing an activity book with lessons to include the history of the Pledge of Allegiance, the American flag and the different branches of military, according to the AFF release. The book also featured “Kids in Camouflage,” a tear-out pamphlet written by students at Fort Belvoir Elementary School in Virginia discussing the lives of military children and growing up on post.
The program is designed to “raise awareness of the joys and hardships of life in military Families and to shed light on the children’s role and how they serve in their own special way,” Patricia Driscoll, AFF president and executive director, wrote in her letter to the educators participating in this year’s program.
The Mountainside Elementary Gold Star School award program consisted of singing patriotic songs, Bennet presenting the school with a U.S. flag flown over the nation’s Capitol and an Operation Caring Classroom Gold Star School banner, fifth-grade students honoring three veterans on the school staff with a poem and Ann Bagshaw’s first-second grade class presenting their creation, a “Veterans are Special Because …” book, to the senator.
“There is nothing more important that we can do than support our veterans and support our armed forces,” Bennet said.
He thanked the Mountainside students for their service and sacrifice, as he read the certificate that accompanied the presentation of the U.S. flag and Gold Star School banner.
“I hope this flag … and this banner serve as a reminder of what you have done to honor our military. Many of you have moms, dads and other
relatives and friends who serve our country and who are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, which means you know firsthand the meaning of Veterans Day and what it is like to be away from someone you love for a long period of time. Your bravery and courage is important too. Finding ways to remember and honor our veterans every day takes special commitment, and I commend each of you for serving as a model for other kids and other schools across the state. The lessons you are learning from your parents and your school about service and self-sacrifice will become even more important as you get older,” he said.
Leesa Morgan-Baker, Mountainside assistant principal, noted the week’s activities included students presenting their writing projects in class and art projects.
“The focus was really around writing,” she said, particularly “having kids express what their feelings are and what it means to them being a military child.”
Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent, said he was impressed with his first Gold Star School visit.
“I think (Operation Caring Classroom) is an unbelievably important program because it engages the kids in something that they’re dealing with on a daily basis because of who they are and who their parents are,” Bennet said at the conclusion of his visit. “It gives them a chance to celebrate that work and to really feel incredibly proud, as they should.”
Having experienced the challenges his three daughters face dealing with his weekly commute to Washington, Bennet could only imagine the effect of not seeing their parents during an extended deployment has on children.
“It’s hard on (my girls) for me to be away four days a week, but I come back every week.It’s nothing like what (these children) have to deal with when one of (their) parents … is deployed,” he said. “By any standard, this school is a nurturing environment … it’s really nice to see it for our military Families.”
Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 Superintendent Cheryl Serrano said the recognition was well-deserved.
“These kids go through so much and you just see how resilient they all are … they’re smiling and we know what kind of hardships they face not getting to see their parents as much as the rest of us get to see our parents and our kids,” Serrano said after the ceremony.