First graders at P.S. 130 were able to meet their heroes face-to-face before kicking off their letter writing campaign in support of soldiers serving overseas.
Students at the Bayside school have committed to a three-week long initiative — part of Operation Gratitude — in which the school’s 75 first graders will write letters, while the rest of the student body collects candy to be sent to deployed military men and women. So far, the school has collected 109 pounds of candy.
Operation Gratitude is a nonprofit, volunteer corporation that assembles and ships care packages to soldiers who are currently serving in all areas of the world, including the Middle East, Afghanistan, Africa and across international waters. Since its inception in 2003, Operation Gratitude volunteers have shipped more than 660,000 packages.
“It’s wonderful that we’re able to help,” Principal Michelle Contratti said to the eager group of first graders during the small school assembly on Wednesday, November 9. “They fight for us so that we can live in a better world.”
Longtime members of the military, Sergeant Alberto Caceda and Staff Sergeant Samuel Cottes visited the newly-minted Blue Ribbon school with a slideshow of photos from the places they’ve been deployed, as well as military equipment for a quick show-and-tell session.
Cottes — whose military experience spans 25 years — explained to the attentive group of youngsters that while soldiers are away fighting for the country, they give up warm, comfortable beds for sleeping bags and trade in pets for bats and huts for homes.
“Appreciate what you have — your homes, your family,” Cottes said. “Sometimes I spend six months to a year away from home, and I miss it a lot.”
Cottes has spent five years in the New York National Guard, 15 years in the Army Reserve and five years with the Air Force. Currently with the Air Force, he coordinates the medical logistics for soldiers and civilians who live in the areas to which he’s been deployed — including Korea, Germany and Panama. He just returned from a tour in Mozambique, Africa.
Caceda — a military member for 10 years — then dumped out his rucksack and showed the students a variety of military equipment, including canteens, packages of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), wet weather clothing, range finders, binoculars, goggles, arm pads, helmets, ponchos and protective vests.
He then invited the kids to stand up and take turns trying on the equipment.
“When you guys write us letters and show that you remember us, it makes us really happy,” he said to the kids. “It makes us feel good. A lot of the time, we really miss home. Your letters and packages bring us up.”
Caceda, who has been deployed to Iraq twice since 2005, told The Courier that during his last deployment, the one letter he received from a child kept him going during a low point he reached while overseas.
“I was really sad because I wasn’t home. The letter helped me get through it. It got me fired up. It made me want to do my best, so that I could come home,” he said, adding that he hung the letter up to constantly remind him of his goal.
“It makes us feel warm, and sometimes the guys really miss that. It’s so great when the letters are from kids,” he said.
Caceda has spent two years with the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea and four years with the 10th Mountain Infantry in Fort Drum, New York. He was later assigned to the New York Army National Guard in New York City.
The visit from the national heroes couldn’t have come at a better time, said Principal Contratti.
The first graders just completed a lesson dedicated to celebrating moments of courage found in every day life — both big and small.
“These are real life heroes,” she said.