I’ve seen a lot of inspiring moments during my educational career, from clutch plays on the diamond during my time as a baseball coach to academic achievements from students who faced more challenges than many of us see in a lifetime.
Still, few moments surpass what I saw in the classrooms of William Dever Elementary School on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. That day was Veterans Day, and as Principal of the Chicago Public School, I was honored to partner with Honor Flight Chicago and welcome 28 veterans to speak with our students about their experience in the military. Twenty-eight of our 8th graders and their teacher, Mandy Guzman, gave up hours and hours of their own time during lunch and after school to plan the event (Here’s news coverage from CBS 2 Chicago about the event).
There was a sense of community and pride in our school that day that was unmatched. The veterans, including several World War II vets and nearly a dozen Korean War veterans, were so engaging with the kids, and the kids just ate it up. You can read about historical events, but these were veterans who experienced history first-hand. They were primary sources for our students, and that made the experience of celebrating Veterans Day so much more meaningful.
Nearly seven months later, I had the awesome experience of flying with Honor Flight Chicago to Washington, D.C., to serve as a Guardian for one of the 101 World War II and Korean War heroes being recognized that day. My veteran was Robert Keel, a Korean War veteran who served from 1950-53 and then went on to teach in the Chicago Public School system for more than 30 years.
We hit it off right away, and it quickly became clear to me that we were going to have a great day. In retrospect, Robert and I didn’t talk much about his service. To be honest, we were too busy talking about his kids, his love of fishing, and his passion for teaching.
“To put it simply, my day with Robert and the other veterans was the best honor I’ve ever gotten in my educational career. Easily.”
Jason Major, Dever Elementary School principal
“I returned home inspired by the trip and excited to figure out new ways to help introduce more areas schools to Honor Flight Chicago.”
Jason Major, Dever Elementary School principal
There were so many great memories from the day, but the image I’ll always remember is Robert coming off the plane in D.C. and just being overcome by emotion as volunteers and strangers lined the Dulles Airport gate area to great the veterans. Robert pulled me aside afterward and confessed that he didn’t realize how much people appreciated what he did.
I think Robert would have been fine with the day ending there, but there was so much more left in store for him — and me. Seeing all the veterans and how strangers reacted to them — particularly the ones who walked up to them and thanked them for their service — all I can say is there was such pride that I felt being around them all day.
To put it simply, my day with Robert and the other veterans was the best honor I’ve ever gotten in my educational career. Easily.
I returned home inspired by the trip and excited to figure out new ways to help introduce more areas schools to Honor Flight Chicago. The organization’s Operation Education program is a phenomenal way for students to connect with veterans and learn from their stories and experiences. Many of the eighth graders at Dever are talking about trying to get their new high schools involved with Honor Flight Chicago’s Operation Education, and our Dever students have written and collected more than 2,000 letters for Honor Flight Chicago to use as part of its Mail Call surprise for veterans.
If you know of a school that would be interested in getting involved with the Operation Education program, let me help you get involved with Honor Flight Chicago. The veterans were an inspiration to our students on Veterans Day and they were an inspiration to me as a Guardian.
How can Honor Flight Chicago and its veterans inspire you?
I’m 23 years old. People my age don’t usually spend a full day with 87-year-olds, but that is exactly what I did earlier this month. And you know what? It was one of the most inspirational days of my life.
First, a bit of background. I’ve worked in the Honor Flight Chicago office for a little more than a year. I help CEO and Co-Founder Mary Pettinato with everything from logistics to data entry, and a whole lot in between. I’ve always been moved by the mission of the organization, but up until this month, I had never experienced a flight to D.C. with our senior war heroes. I had been to several Welcome Home celebrations, which are powerful in their own right, but I was hoping to one day get the chance to take in an entire day alongside roughly 100 World War II and Korean War veterans.
On May 9, 2018, I got my chance.
I had the privilege to serve as Guardian for Korean War veteran Edvins T. Budenieks. Ed grew up in Latvia in the 1940s. His homeland was invaded by Russians. Then by the Nazis. Then by Russians again. It was 1949 when 20-year-old Ed and his family immigrated to the United States. They ended up in Mississippi, where he took on a variety of jobs, from picking cotton to greasing tractors. Eighteen months later, he was married. The month after that, he was in the U.S. Army.
Ed served from Feb. 1950 to Sept. 1952 with the 24th Infantry Division, and he spent nine months on the frontline in Korea.
I read a profile of Ed prior to meeting him, but I didn’t really know what to expect out of the day. I thought the overall mood of the day would be relatively somber, and I had a feeling we’d be spending a lot of time talking through the itinerary of the day and the specific sights we’d be visiting.
I discovered that while Ed enjoyed all of the memorials, for him, the day was much more about camaraderie. He and his fellow veterans were cracking jokes with one another throughout the day. It was clear that he was interested in talking with other veterans. And he wasn’t the only one.
I was blown away by the sheer number of bystanders who came up to Ed and the other veterans to thank them for their service. To see this mix of people — from all walks of life — come together and thank these heroes was truly inspiring.
“I was blown away by the sheer number of bystanders who came up to Ed and the other veterans to thank them for their service.”
One of my favorite moments came in the mid afternoon as I was trying to buy Ed a 24th Infantry Division patch. I insisted that he didn’t pay, but he didn’t like that. He kept asking me how much the patch costed, but I said it was my small gift for him. He finally gave in, but then he said he wanted to buy me an ice cream in exchange.
As we went back and forth, a D.C. businessman waiting for an Uber saw what happened. He put down his cell phone, walked over to us and said he wanted to pay for Ed’s patch and my ice cream. Before we could protest, the man paid for both, thanked Ed for his service and drove off.
It was such a cool moment, one that I won’t soon forget.
My best memories, though, came during the downtime of the day — the flights to and from D.C., the bus rides from memorial to memorial. We talked about Ed’s childhood, his family, his career, his travels with his wife. I was able to get to know him at a far deeper level than the average person I interact with on a day-to-day basis.
When I said goodbye to Ed after he went through his Welcome Home at Midway, I thanked him for his service, but more than that, I thanked him for sharing his stories with me and for being an inspiration. When I talk with people my age, they often don’t have the life experiences and frame of reference to help envision what our futures could look like. Ed was different, though. He showed me the power of courage and resilience, of optimism and appreciation.
I’m a better person because of Edvins T. Budenieks.
“When I said goodbye to Ed after he went through his Welcome Home at Midway, I thanked him for his service, but more than that, I thanked him for sharing his stories with me and for being an inspiration.”
“We need a chairperson, someone who will run a golf fundraiser for Flag Day. You can choose any charity and any golf format you want” said the Ladies Golf Chairperson. Laurie Matasar and Lynn Gaby glanced at each other, gave the nod, and raised our hands.
That was in 2014. Today, the friends of 30 years are preparing for their third annual Flag Day Charity Event benefitting Honor Flight Chicago.
“As soon we discovered Honor Flight Chicago, we knew we wanted to focus our fundraising efforts on honoring our senior war veterans who so proudly and bravely fought for our freedom,” Gaby said.
The members at their golf club embraced the idea.
“Everyone knows a veteran,” Gaby said. “They have a father, a brother, an uncle, a son or daughter who served or are serving in our military. I think everyone, golfer or not, feels the pride for these men and women who sacrificed for our everyday freedom.”
As chairpersons, Gaby and Matasar structured the event to make it inclusive for all levels of players. They got their caddie master (who also is a veteran) to encourage golfers to dig deep for a donation, and the pro shop got involved in promotion and donating prizes. The halfway house attendant made up a brilliant flyer, which was posted in the clubhouse, on lockers and in email blasts.
With their first fundraiser, Gaby and Matasar raised enough money to sponsor a veteran’s day of honor. The following year, they doubled their total, raising more than $2,000.
“The pride we feel for giving our veterans a day of honor in Washington, D.C. remains robust,” Gaby said. “We look forward to continuing our fundraising and hope to inspire other golf courses to seize the Flag Day concept and implement it at their course. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
By Annie Kane, Hadley Junior High School science teacher
I cannot thank you all enough for what you have done for our students and our school this year!
Our problem-based learning activity started when Mary Pettinato came to speak to our students at the kick-off event, telling students about Honor Flight Chicago, presenting them with problems to solve and challenging them to do their part to help the organization honor veterans. Mary can only be described as a force of nature. She is a compelling speaker, and by the end of her presentation she had an army of 350 sixth graders who were inspired to help her organization in any way they could. After the event, she was surrounded by students giving hugs, shaking hands, and thanking her for coming.
Students then had the opportunity to meet and interview veterans from WWII and the Korean War. The day was emotional for students and staff alike. Teachers with a free period, parents and office staff could be seen slipping into rooms to hear some of the veterans’ stories. History we had learned about in books now had a face and a personal story to make it more meaningful. Students asked questions and took notes, then wrote a narrative about the veteran they interviewed.
My personal favorite moment that day was when I called my mother, a woman who had grown up in France during WWII, with WWII Tank Commander Peter Gilea beside me. He had fought his way across Europe starting at D-Day. I wanted to introduce her to one of the heroes responsible for the liberation of her country when she was a girl. Hearing her speak on behalf of France to thank him for her freedom is a touching moment that I won’t forget. Impromptu applause, hugs and handshakes by students occurred throughout the day, and you could hear students thanking veterans for their service.
Next, students wrote narratives about the veterans, and were charged with coming up with solutions to the problem of how to best help Honor Flight Chicago honor our veterans. We asked students to consider Korean Veterans in particular, as they were veterans from a largely forgotten war.
After the students designed their solutions, they presented to an expert panel of veterans and Honor Flight Chicago volunteers. The panel heard the students ideas, asked questions and gave the students feedback on their solutions in order to improve them. Having experts hear student ideas and give suggestions is a powerful part of problem-based learning.
Students came up with many ideas based upon what Mary presented when she had spoken to them. Many wanted to have our school write letters for mail call, tell impact stories of veterans by making podcasts or videos made of the narratives they had written. However, others went in a variety of other directions. For example:
One group designed a coffee cup with the Honor Flight Chicago logo and a QR code on it that would link people to the HFC website for donations.
Another group thought about visiting senior homes in the area to share information about HFC with eligible veterans.
A third group decided to design an Honor Flight Chicago App idea to pitch to the Verizon App Challenge competition.
Other groups wanted to distribute HFC bookmarks at the local library, bookstore or elsewhere in the community to inform the public about the organization and encourage donations.
Many of these ideas went on to be implemented by students and teachers. Yet these are only a few of the many ideas students created and defended after presenting them to experts.
Honor Flight Chicago partnered with Hadley students and teachers throughout this process, providing access to veterans and HFC staff, giving students inspiration, giving students feedback on their ideas, setting up an appointment for our students to work with their graphic designer to design bookmarks, and more.
We have heard repeatedly from many students that they knew veterans were important, but that their awareness of the importance of veterans was permanently elevated and changed by this experience. As educators, we were happy that students collaborated, created solutions, thought critically, and communicated ideas in the process.
My father was a World War II veteran. He was 53 when I was born, and we were clearly from very different generations. As for me, I served 20 years as a Cyber Warfare Officer for the U.S. Air Force. I served two tours in Iraq before I retired this past April.
My father and I never saw eye to eye. That is, until I experienced the same thing he went through more than six decades earlier.
When he returned home from service, he basically felt that he was forgotten. No one made a big deal about the courage he demonstrated or the sacrifices he made. When I returned from my first tour in Iraq, I felt the same thing. No one said anything to me. My family picked me up from the airport, and then I went back to work as if nothing had happened. I wasn’t looking for a parade, but it was hard to not receive any sort of acknowledgement.
That is why I knew my day as a Guardian with Honor Flight Chicago was going to be emotional. Now that I’ve had a few days to recover, I confess that I underestimated how emotional it would be.
I had the pleasure of traveling to Washington, D.C. with 108 World War II and Korean War veterans on July 12 as part of Honor Flight Chicago’s 79th Honor Flight. It was overwhelming to see all the people saying “Thank you for your service” to our veterans. I have walked in these veterans’ shoes, and the words of gratitude are priceless.
Our senior war heroes have spent more than 50 years thinking this nation lived under the blanket of safety without a second thought to the men and women who fought for it. Honor Flight Chicago’s day of honor for these veterans changed that. It was crystal clear to them — and to me — that people appreciated their service and that people haven’t forgotten.
I spent my day assisting Moe Maw, a Korean War veteran who lives in Woodstock, Ill. Moe was not a man of many words, but we hit our stride together quickly. I knew when he’d need a napkin, and I’d just hand him something without him even having to ask for it.
At the end of the day, he told me that when he talks about the day, he’s going to mention me first because I helped make it so special. I was flattered, but I said that would be a mistake. The day was made possible because of all the people who donate time and money to Honor Flight Chicago, not me.
Today, I am a Sayers Senior Project Manager, and I’m proud that my company recently donated $25,000 to Honor Flight Chicago. I had quite a few coworkers who came to the Welcome Home ceremony at Midway Airport. I spoke with everyone from the company afterward, and each said that the ceremony touched them. My boss brought his 18-year-old son to the celebration, and now his son can’t stop talking about the experience.
So, on behalf of Moe Maw and all the other veterans on the flight, please allow me to say thank you to everyone who was so gracious in their praise and thanks. Your words meant the world to us.
“I knew my day as a Guardian was going to be emotional. I confess that I underestimated how emotional it would be.”
Nancy Staiger has volunteered with Honor Flight Chicago for just about as long as the organization has existed.
Staiger was new to Chicago, having recently moved from California, when one of Honor Flight Chicago’s co-founders recommended she come out to Midway to see a Welcome Home celebration.
“I went along, not knowing what on Earth it was going to be,” Staiger said, “and I spent a majority of the time sitting in the corner crying because I was so moved and touched by what it was.”
Staiger immediately volunteered to assist with future Welcome Home celebrations. Before long, she was helping in the mornings at Midway as well. Then she volunteered as a Guardian and started coming in to help with odd projects in Honor Flight Chicago’s Lincoln Park office.
As time went on, Staiger began to fill any gaps she could for Honor Flight Chicago: she trained volunteers, submitted application data on the computer, answered questions posted on the organization’s website, and even organized one of Honor Flight Chicago’s biggest fundraisers, the annual Chicago Police Department vs. FBI Hockey Classic.
Staiger doesn’t have family members who served in World War II or the Korean War, but she recognizes the impact Honor Flight Chicago has on anyone who touches the organization.
“I see the change in the seniors when they come home at the end of that flight,” Staiger said. “They get a new sense of self-worth and rebirth in terms of their futures.”
Staiger has witnessed countless instances where this new energy impacts a veteran’s relationship with their children, grandchildren, community, neighborhood and other veterans.
“Many of them are at a point in their life when they are wondering ‘does it make a difference whether or not I’m still here?’” Staiger said. “And it does. It so does.”
Just as Staiger took on a number of different responsibilities, she stressed there are always opportunities for volunteers to do something they’re interested in.
“You could be the person who is really good at stuffing envelopes, or you could be the person that has an incredible background in grant writing or web development or nursing or medical care,” Staiger said. “There are so many different ways to make a difference, and the feeling of making a difference is huge.”
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