When Ann McCarthy and her husband Mark of Centreville decided to participate in the adopt-a-troop program through AmericaSupportsYou.com, they were expecting to get one troop a piece — not exactly a demanding obligation.
But within the earliest correspondence with her troop, Sgt. John Burgan of the 209th Air Support Battalion stationed in Iraq, Ann realized that her responsibility had multiplied 50-fold.
“IT TURNED out that he was in charge of 50 helicopter maintenance personnel,” Ann said. “He signed up for the program to get things for his troops, so I ended up with 51 troops.”
As the holidays approached, Ann, an instructional assistant in the autism program at Liberty Middle School, knew she needed help. In November, she sent out a mass e-mail to all Liberty faculty and staff, asking them to get their students involved in the effort.
“I was flooded with e-mails,” said Ann, who has worked for the county for 17 years, and was a charter member of Liberty’s staff. “Easily, 30 teachers responded positively. By contacting the teachers, it gave them the opportunity to individually reach out to their students.”
Ann set up boxes at Liberty, where students and teachers could donate simple, yet surprisingly valuable items — including socks, stationary, candy, and hot chocolate — to the troops in John’s battalion, as well as Mark’s troop, stationed in Afghanistan. But the truly heartfelt response took place in the classroom, where teachers put aside class time for activities assisting in the effort.
Kathryn Shaw-Gardner, a first-year Spanish I teacher, had her class make gracias cards for the troops and set up boxes in her classroom marked Regalos para los soldados or “gifts for the soldiers.”
“My brother was in the Navy, so I asked him what we could include in the cards that the soliders would like,” Gardner said. “And he said ‘thank you.’ The notes and cards were heartfelt and quite creative.”
MARY ROSER, 13, an eighth-grader at Liberty, was the biggest contributor in Gardner’s class, filling up multiple boxes on her own. For Roser, the issue at hand was a personal one.
“My dad is retired Army. My grandfather fought in World War I and World War II,” Roser said. “It just felt like I could help [the soldiers]. I went out with my mom and we filled up Christmas stockings for them.”
For many participants, it was the family connection that made helping out a no-brainer. Linda Alvarez, a first-year computer and technology teacher, grew up with her father in the military, and wanted to get her students involved directly.
“I decided to make it a project in my class because it makes it personal for them,” Alvarez said.
Students in Alvarez’s Advanced Tech Tools class made cards using Microsoft Publisher, a program they had learned to use in class. Teachers did their best to incorporate relevant class material in the activities.
“We all had fun, especially using the program,” said Thomas Mitchell, 13. “It made making the cards really easy.”
While the effort was successful at Liberty — collecting six boxes and countless cards during the first week of December — the project took on new life outside the school’s doors.
Karri Iaquinta, who along with being the chair of Liberty’s math department coaches Centreville High School’s freshman cheerleading squad, saw an opportunity to get her girls involved.
“My cheerleaders do a volunteer effort each year,” Iaquinta said. “When the e-mail came out, I presented it to them, and they went crazy. They started planning immediately.”
In early December, the cheerleaders set up shop in front of the Giant Food in Centrewood Plaza, soliciting donations from customers. Five hours later, the girls left with nine boxes of food and other materials for the troops.
“It was so endearing how generous everyone was,” Iaquinta said. “We even had people donating money because they knew we had to mail off this stuff.”
While the freshman squad was collecting donations, the junior varsity squad was helping out by making goody bags for troops, which included water bottles, breakfast bars, cookies, and other essential and luxury items.
SAMMI SWEENY, a sophomore at Centreville and member of the JV squad, was excited to be a part of the project.
“We were each given 12 bags and had about two weeks to fill them,” Sweeny said. “We were all so happy to help the troops and be a part of this wonderful experience.”
Ann finally sent off the 15 boxes in early December, and heard back from John soon after. When the packages arrived in Iraq, John was away on emergency leave while his mother underwent heart surgery. When he returned, everything was devoured except a box of cigars, left for him by his troops. Even more than the material donations, Ann was most impressed by the content of the student’s cards and letters.
“They really seemed interested in what it’s like for them over there,” she said. “They expressed a lot of concern for how they were doing.”
As much as the effort helped the troops in Iraq, the teachers noted how valuable the experience was for the students, as well.
“I wanted them to be involved with supporting the troops,” Alvarez said. “Not just hearing about it or seeing it on TV. It’s important for them to think outside of themselves.”