- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) - It’s not always through a text book or an exam a student learns a lesson.

Sometimes, the most remembered lessons are those are learned through the heart.

That’s exactly what Karen Hitt’s fifth-grade homeroom class learned through Ballman Cares, a project in which the class adopted soldiers serving in Afghanistan and sent care packages and letters to them.

“The kids are learning so much about giving and patriotism - and just helping others,” Hitt, who has taught 29 years, 26 of which have been at Ballman, told the Times Record (https://bit.ly/1h8iiFw).

Shannon Pierce, a student teacher under Hitt this semester, said the project changed many of the fifth-grade students.

“They’ve got a whole new outlook on it,” Pierce said.

It was Pierce who had the initial vision for the project. One of Pierce’s good friends is serving overseas in Afghanistan with an Army Ranger unit. She would talk about him, and the students wanted to send him a package of items.

When the friend contacted Pierce to thank her, he mentioned that there were at least seven other Rangers who had not received any letters or packages since they had been deployed.

“We were talking with some of the kids, and they wanted to show them we care about them,” Pierce said.

They started collecting items for the packages and made cards - each homeroom table made a card for a different soldier. The students then asked Pierce what some items were that her soldier friend missed from home.

Beef jerky was the overwhelming answer.

In addition to beef jerky, they brought in sunflower seeds, small boxes of cereal, gummy bears, playing cards, crossword puzzles, canned potato chips, DVDs, powdered drink mixes, nuts, dried fruit, laundry detergent pods, deodorant, toothbrushes, baby wipes, energy shot drinks and granola bars or power bars.

“You would not believe what they brought in, the outpouring of stuff,” Hitt said.

“They overwhelmed us bringing stuff. And the response I got from parents, saying I want to help do this; the parental support was amazing.”

With at least two boxes per soldier, shipping costs were going to add up - money that the Ballman fifth-graders did not have. So Hitt reached out to one of the school’s Partners in Education, the Sebastian County Bar Association.

Sebastian County Circuit Judge James Cox, who regularly reads to students at Ballman, circulated an email soliciting assistance from members of the SCBA, who pitched in to offer $500 to help with shipping costs.

“Most of the members of the bar association are sympathetic to the people over there,” said Cox, a past president of the SCBA. “This was a small thing they could do to let people know they’re thought of.”

Hitt said she, Pierce and the students were humbled by the generosity.

“It just hit a nerve,” Hitt said, as students helped pack flat-rate boxes, which ship for $15 each, with goodies. “I’m just overwhelmed with what you guys did for us. It just grew and grew.”

Aubrey Barr, a local attorney and secretary of the SCBA, had a personal reason for wanting to participate. Her fiance has been deployed three times, and she has forwarded many care packages to him and his soldier buddies, most of which have been packed with homemade goodies Barr baked in her own kitchen.

“The baked goods are the No. 1 request from my fiance and his friends,” explained Barr, who regular sends packages to her fiance every other week.

Barr said the baked goods pack well and she’s learned a few tricks.

“I put apple peels in my containers to help the cookies or bars stay moist, so they don’t crumble,” Barr added, noting that she packs the airtight containers in the boxes surrounded with plastic bags as packing material.

Sam Gaddis, 11, said he felt the coolest thing in the boxes were the letters.

“One of the reasons the letters are so special is because the food will be opened and gone,” Sam explained. “But the letters, they can always touch someone and they can keep them for a while.”

Joey Kidd, 11, also thought the letters were special.

“I wanted to help but didn’t know how to help,” Joey said. “But everyone was still able to mail a letter. We spent a day or two writing letters.”

Several of the students felt strongly about wanting the soldiers to know someone back home cared about them.

“It’s nice to know that you are helping and that people actually enjoy what you’ve done,” said Jillian Clark, 11.

“They’re happy that . kids across the country are caring about them and giving them stuff,” Pateyn Privett, 10, pondered about what the soldiers would think when they opened their boxes.

“I just heard there were seven people who weren’t getting any stuff,” Tristan Boley, 11, said. “I felt bad for them and started getting stuff for them.”

“It felt really good just to do all that for them,” explained Jacob Evans, 10. “They’ve spent more than six months over there with no phone calls or anything. It feels really good.”

Hitt said she hopes the Ballman Cares project will become an annual project and will encourage other schools to follow suit and adopt soldiers.

“It doesn’t matter what you feel about the war or the president,” Hitt explained. “There are men and women who are living and giving their lives for our protection. We wanted them to know there are people who care about them.


Information from: Southwest Times Record, https://www.swtimes.com/

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