Student letters brighten the holidays of Navy recruits

Friday, December 28, 2018
Eighth-graders Allie Linke, left, and Connie Marcos were happy to make sure Navy recruits felt supported in their letters before going home for winter break. / Photos by Elijah Decious

It’s a scene many civilians might not think of. Everyone lines up for mail time each day, waiting.

But local seventh and eighth graders together thought about Navy recruits in basic training this Christmas—particularly those who don’t get any letters. Over 100 students sent letters making sure those sacrificing to serve our country knew they were in someone’s thoughts in what can be the loneliest time of year for some.

Before Aurelia middle-schoolers were dismissed for their winter break last week, they took some time to think about those who don’t get always get to go home for the holidays.

Some students wrote letters as long as three pages. Others happily wrote multiple letters to make sure every soldier didn’t walk away from mail time empty-handed.

“They all wait to have their name called,” said teacher Lesa Heschke, who organized the project for students. “If your name isn’t called, what happens? You just walk away and everybody else has got something they’re reading.”

Local mom Lisa Loring brought it to her attention. Lisa’s son, Collin, who is in basic training, told his mom about how many soldiers he saw not getting mail at role call.

“The more letters, the better, because there’s just so many people who don’t get mail,” said Mrs. Heschke.

About 110 students wrote letters to Chicago Navy recruits in basic training.

Some students felt compelled to write multiple, lengthy letters, showing Heschke a facet of empathy that students that age often don’t get credit for. “It’s not that people don’t like them or don’t appreciate them, but they just miss out on this bunch of kids and how they can give back,” at that age, she said.

The week before school let out, they collected about 2,000 lbs of food given from paper bags they distributed throughout the neighborhood.

In reviving the lost art of letter writing, suggesting nothing more than a few ideas of what students could include in their letters, she discovered things about her students she had not seen before. Former recipients of her letter writing projects “just couldn’t believe it, that kids would take the time to do this,” the teacher said.

“I know firsthand that if you don’t talk to anyone for a while it gets lonely,” said eighth-grader Connie Marcos. “For someone to actually talk to you… it makes you feel good for a little while.”

While delivering her Christmas tidings, Marcos also asked her pen pal in basic training if they had access to their smartphones. “You don’t have Snapchat, so you can’t see what’s going on,” she said without a detectable hint of irony in her voice.

Snapchat, the smartphone app known as a self-destructing picture messaging service, has evolved over the years to offer a collection of news and tabloid articles, from The Washington Post to Teen Vogue. It seems the app is now being taken seriously as a casual news source for at least some of today’s teenagers, the lion’s share of regular Snapchat users.

“They talked about their own lives and mentioned fellow soldier Collin,” their teacher commented of the contents.

She also noted that the conversational style of letters was not lost on this generation, such as issues with “texting” abbreviations spilling over into their handwritten form—a change from her experience with this eight to nine years ago.

“They do better than we give them credit for,” Heschke said, complimenting her kids for their appreciation of those who make sacrifices in the name of public service. She hopes to teach her students that letter writing doesn’t have to be a lost art—even though the last letter Marcos wrote, stamped and mailed was several years ago, one of just a handful she said she’s written in her life.

The students, starting to think about their own futures, also took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about military service as if they would personally receive a response.

That appreciation was another value Heschke was glad to instill as a civic value in her students with the project. “They’re recognizing each branch has their own area, each unique,” Heschke said, “but all have a common purpose and common sacrifice.”

With that, they internalized what it meant to be a veteran, she said.

“I hope it makes them feel cared about,” said student Allie Linke, “because I like feeling cared about.”

Linke said she understands veterans are sometimes under appreciated or forgotten about. “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I hope you have a Merry Christmas and get to see your family soon,” she said in her letter to a stranger.

Loring was emotional just picking up the letters, Heschke said, a conveyance of what they’ll mean to the people they’ve been written for who don’t get anything else at mail time.

“They loved knowing they could make a difference for someone,” she said, simply by making sure they don’t walk away from mail time empty-handed.

The Navy recruits in Chicago receiving the letters will graduate January 29. After a grueling experience, these letters may serve as a reminder to them of why they enlisted—a memory sure to stick during their service on submarines or ships, stateside and overseas.

Another honorable mention:

Credit also goes to Aurelia’s third and eighth grade homerooms for thinking of local families this season. An adopted family in Cherokee County was taken care of thanks to the generosity of kids at a time of year when many are thinking about what to ask their parents for. Money and toys were collected, and shopping trips were made with Aurelia teacher Deb Peterson to get the things the family needed.

“It’s kind of a fun project and they thought it would be a nice thing to do,” said Peterson. “After getting back in the car (from shopping), one girl said ‘this makes me really happy.’”

Peterson said their students understand that they’re always luckier than they may think they are. They were excited to get both the necessities and the fun things for the family, like brownies you might not buy if you’re strapped for the bare essentials.

“It was good to see them work through the problems families have and made them think about life in poverty,” the music teacher said. “I think they see a need.”

Thanks to them, a family of five had a merrier Christmas than they might have otherwise had.