South Charlotte

Being remembered was the greatest gift

All it took was some crayons, construction paper and a simple "thank you" to warm the hearts of some of the nation's bravest men and women and let them know they haven't been forgotten.

Students at Smithfield Elementary off Park Road recently crafted more than 400 cards and letters for veterans being treated in the Veterans Administration hospitals in Durham and Salisbury.

Special education teacher Kate Fitzpatrick, 38, orchestrated the project.

Fitzpatrick's father, a retired colonel in the Army, passed away in July and later was given full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. To help process some of her grief, Fitzpatrick mobilized the school to thank veterans for their service.

"There are (military) people dying every day, and half the time we don't even know about it," said Fitzpatrick.

So on Veterans' Day and throughout the month of November, teachers incorporated veterans into their lesson plans. Some active military parents, clad in fatigues, spoke to classes. Fitzgerald even helped make a "Veterans Family Tree" - a bubble map mounted on butcher paper in the school lobby, where students could make bubbles for the veterans in their families.

But the most heartwarming lesson revolved around the hundreds of cards and letters students wrote for veterans. Smithfield teacher Elise Devlin's husband, Peter, who served in the Army, offered to deliver them when he went to see his doctor at the VA Hospital in Durham.

After he arrived, Devlin, 57, had to go to the lab to get some blood drawn. The line was long, and the waiting room was somber. Devlin had the stack of cards and letters with him, which he'd planned to hand to someone in the main office. But the guy next to him looked pretty low, so Devlin gave him a card.

"His face lit up," said Devlin. "He looked at me and said, 'You know, that's the nicest thing somebody's done for me all day.'"

So after chatting with the man beside him, a Vietnam vet, Devlin began passing out the cards and letters to everyone in the waiting room. Then he walked across the hall to another waiting room and distributed some there.

With the help of a nurse on duty, he also passed the cards out to hospital staff who had served. "The waiting room was full of people all sitting in their own worlds, and all of a sudden I'm giving out these cards, and they all start talking," said Devlin. "I don't think the kids realized how much it meant to the veterans."

After his appointment, Devlin checked in the waiting room trashcans to see if any of the cards or letters had been thrown away. Not a single card had been discarded. "Then I was walking around the lobby, and saw everybody still holding onto those cards," he said. "They had come to their appointments ... were leaving and were standing in line for the pharmacy - everybody still holding onto those cards."

Devlin still had a few letters when he left Durham, so on the way home he stopped at the VA Hospital in Salisbury to pass out the rest.

"They just (said) it was nice to be remembered, and it was great that the kids would do this," said Devlin.

A couple of classes are becoming pen pals with some veterans. "The kids learned how nice it is to help someone, and most of those (veterans) will never even know who they are," said Fitzpatrick.

"It's brought an awareness," she said. "One of my true desires behind this was to remind all of us how much our military service men and women give up in order for us to be free."