- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

They may be anti-war, but these Prince George’s students are not anti-troops.

“I don’t know much about [the Iraq conflict], but I’m against war,” student Michael Proctor said. “But I want to help [the soldiers] regardless, because if somebody can risk their life for me to do what I’m doing,” then he can find the time to thank them.

The 15-year-old sophomore is among 45 students at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale who either raised money or earned money to create more than 60 holiday gift boxes to be presented this morning to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“Our teenagers get such negative press, I’m hoping this activity can offset the negative,” said Korea C. Strowder of Northeast about the articulate and altruistic cadre of Prince George’s County students who have the war’s wounded in mind this Christmas.

The octogenarian mother sent me a beautifully handwritten note (don’t get many of those anymore) in response to my column urging folks to consider alternative gift-giving activities this holiday season.

This morning, Mrs. Strowder’s daughter and Flowers High teacher Kathryn S. Gray will deliver the wrapped Christmas boxes — filled with toiletries, pajamas, socks, phone cards and stamps, as well as CDs and DVDs — on behalf of her charges who “felt strongly” about demonstrating their appreciation for the huge sacrifice the wounded soldiers have made.

Most of the recipients, Mrs. Gray said, were injured by land mines or roadside bombs and need prosthetics.

Each student was asked to put five items in a shoe box. To her delight, many of them, members of her Spanish classes or participants in the ski club she sponsors, went beyond the call.

“Some of the boxes are really big,” she said, worried about how she will transport the gifts today to the Medical Family Assistance Center at the Walter Reed complex off Georgia Avenue Northwest.

Michael was one of the students who turned the holiday project into a family affair. The Proctors put together three Christmas boxes.

“At first I wasn’t going to do it, but I changed my mind,” Michael said. He was deterred by a heavy load of homework, but he “found the time” for this “good cause” because he thought about the soldiers finding the time “to fight their heart out” for us.

Jessica Gamble stocked two shoe boxes with treats. “I don’t agree with the war. … I try to be really, really peaceful, and I think [the nation’s leaders] should have a national sit-down and discuss it,” said the bubbly 15-year-old sophomore, who also volunteers as a tutor at an after-school program for younger children.

Several of her cousins are in the military and have returned safely. “I’d want someone to do something to cheer them up and keep their spirits up and let them know that people really do care about them if they couldn’t make it home,” she said.

This is not the first year Mrs. Gray encouraged her students to give gifts to soldiers. The native Washingtonian started the project while teaching at her alma mater, Eastern High School. She retired from D.C. schools in 2003 after “only 34 years.” In 2004, she wanted to do something special for the son of a former Army reservist who is a member of her congregation, From the Heart Church Ministries in Temple Hills.

As part of their Hands in Ministry group, Mrs. Gray and a friend, who asked not to be identified, share duties interpreting for deaf parishioners.

The friend’s son, who visited her Flowers High students, is now on his second tour in Iraq with a military police brigade at Camp Victory. This year, however, Mrs. Gray’s friend suggested that the students “do something for someone local,” she said. “They’re the hidden casualties of war and they’re right here.” Mrs. Gray got a wish list from Walter Reed, which included stuffed animals and treats.

“One thing they asked for was book bags with a single strap for those who lost a limb,” Mrs. Gray said.

Though her students come from families that range from upper middle class to disadvantaged, “they didn’t just get money from their parents,” she said.

Mrs. Gray was especially proud and touched by those who asked that she extend the deadline for turning in their boxes so they could cash paychecks from their after-school jobs to buy their contributions. The Spanish Honor Society also donated $300 for Christmas boxes.

Erica Suggs, a 16-year-old junior, used her allowance and help from her parents to purchase her box of warm items such as PJs and, of course, cookies.

“This [project] helps me to appreciate the things I have like a roof over my head, and I still have my limbs and a family to go home to,” she said.

Prince George’s County students are required to participate in community service projects to graduate, but many of the Flowers High students took on this project voluntarily. “It’s so important that students have hands-on experience to help people in need as opposed to just making money donations,” Mrs. Gray said.

“We have to learn how to do more than spend money,” she said, echoing my sentiments about sharing your blessings with the less fortunate this Christmas.

And, Erica’s grateful representative message to the wounded soldiers? “Merry Christmas, and I hope you get well soon.”

On that note, happy holidays to all.

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