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On Your Marks, Get Set, Hunt!

ThanksUSA national treasure hunt kicks off at Franklin Sherman Elementary with a special assembly.

A concept that started out as a sisterly "brain blast" on a summer vacation, launched into full fledged reality for Kelsi Okun, 8, and Rachel Okun, 10.

Last summer, the Franklin Sherman Elementary School students came up with the idea of creating a national treasure hunt that would draw attention to a campaign to raise scholarship money for the families of U.S. troops who are serving, or have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The girls came up with the idea after reading Michael Stadter's book "A Treasure Trove" which gave readers clues that were meant to lead them to the locations of 12 jewels hidden all over the United States.

Enamored with the concept of a national treasure hunt, Kelsi and Rachel wanted to think of a way to create their own hunt, while simultaneously doing something good for others.

"When our parents said yes you can do it, but what would you do it for, we chose the U.S. soldiers," said Rachel.

This was due in large part to the positive experience the girls had after sending care packages to U.S. troops.

"We got this really wonderful letter back," said Rachel. "We were really touched by what they said."

The family then brainstormed about the best possible way to help U.S. soldiers.

"Since education is really important to our family, we thought that we could give scholarships to the families of troops because their families are away right now," said Rachel.

Subsequently, ThanksUSA was born. The name stands for Treasure Hunt Aiding Needs of Kids (and spouses) of those Serving the United States of America. The Okun family has spent the last nine months working with friends, neighbors and Franklin Sherman parents and teachers to create a national treasure hunt book with 12-state oriented chapters.

Participants must follow the clues in each chapter to decipher a one-word, two-word, or three-word answer. Once they have the answer, they must log on to www.ThanksUSA.org to register their submission. Those who answer correctly are then eligible to win various prizes that include a family trip to Disney World, a family package of mountain bikes or a family trip to the Egyptian Pyramids.

ON FRIDAY, MAY 26, a special assembly was held at Franklin Sherman Elementary School to kick-off the national treasure hunt. Franklin Sherman principal Marty Smith said he can still recall when Franklin Sherman third grade teacher Carolyn Ferek knocked on his office door at the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year.

"She said Mr. Smith I need to talk to you about this idea that Kelsi and Rachel have," said Smith. "She told me about it and I said, you know what? This is going to be big."

Smith's prediction was right on the money. The ThanksUSA concept quickly blossomed into a project that earned $4 million in funding from Congress, its own pro-bono commercial campaign, and the involvement of Franklin Sherman teachers and parents.

At Friday's assembly, Raymond Simon, Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education spoke about the importance of education, and the importance of appreciating the freedom provided by American troops.

"As we prepare to celebrate this special holiday, you might want to think about writing to some of these people and telling them how much you love them, and how much you appreciate what they're doing for you," said Simon. "Remember too that today will be history tomorrow, and that you will be a part of that, and that how you are remembered in history is based largely on how you think and behave today."

Jane Strauss, Fairfax County School Board member for the Dranesville District, also spoke at the assembly and reminded students about the importance of caring about others.

"We are trying to help you become good, strong citizens who make good decisions that are not just morally right, but that help to benefit others as well," said Strauss. "Our community and our school is only as good as we make it."

Strauss also commended Kelsi and Rachel's parents Bob and Deanna Okun for their willingness to see their daughters' "brain blast" to fruition.

"Kids have wonderful ideas, and often these wonderful ideas need grown-ups to give them shape and help them come to life," said Strauss.

The Okun's neighbor, Lt. Col. John Lanier Ward, a purple heart recipient in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the father of Franklin Sherman first grader Allie Ward, also spoke at the kick-off celebration. When Kelsi and Rachel first had the idea of creating a scholarship fund for families of U.S. troops, they ran it by Ward to see if he thought it was a good concept.

"He thought it was a great idea," said Rachel.

Ward urged students to think about the "two R's" over Memorial Day weekend.

"I think of Memorial Day in two ways," said Ward. "One is remembrance — remembering those who have given their lives to preserve our freedom... and the second is reflection — reflection of what makes this nation so great, and that is our children."