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America Supports You: Iowa Boy Makes Mark Supporting Troops

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

BLAKESBURG, Iowa, Dec. 17, 2006 – Of the 136 scrapbook pages Blakesburg (Iowa) Elementary School students made for Connect and Join’s “World’s Largest and Greatest Scrapbook,” one in particular stood out.

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Sawyer Deevers, 5, shows Linda Dennis, founder of Connect and Join, how his Brailler works while his Braille teacher, Lane Anthony, looks on. The Blakesburg (Iowa) Elementary kindergartener has been blind since birth. But, through the use of his ‘Brailler,’ he participates in regular classroom activities like creating scrapbook pages for Connect and Join's "World's Largest and Greatest Scrapbook" for the troops. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Sawyer Deevers, a Blakesburg Elementary School kindergartener who gets a little shy when the spotlight shines his way, made the page that caught Connect and Join’s attention. Sawyer, 5, who has been blind since birth, wrote his message to the troops using his “Brailler.”

Connect and Join is a member of America Supports You, a Defense Department program showcasing ways Americans support the nation’s servicemembers.

Sawyer’s message was a simple one summing up his feelings about the troops. “Thank you for protecting us,” he wrote. “I like you guys.”

Students all over the country have sent in scrapbook pages with similar messages, Linda Dennis, founder of Connect and Join, said. The organization has received boxes and envelopes stuffed with pages.

“One day an envelope came in from Blakesburg, Iowa, and it was very humbling to open it and find we had (a page) in Braille,” Dennis said during at visit to the school Dec. 15. “As we moved through the process of setting our first meeting up, the concern came back to me, ‘Well, let’s don’t exploit Sawyer.’ I came back and said, ‘Do you realize how many sight-impaired soldiers are coming back from theater?’”

The impact of Sawyer’s letters wasn’t lost on members of the 224th Engineer Battalion who were at the school for a ceremony to thank the students for their support of the troops. A member of the battalion suffered vision loss while serving in Iraq during 2005.

“I think it’s hope. That’s the first thing I thought of when I saw that. I had … chills,” Army Sgt. 1st Class Danny Simonson said. “Maybe (if servicemembers who have lost their sight touche)that page, it’ll be their first chance to feel in Braille.

“That might just build them to think, ‘I need to learn this. I’ll get this,’” he added.

Sawyer told his parents he wanted to continue making pages so that Connect and Join can send them to all the centers where sight-impaired soldiers are recovering. He plans to continue at a pace of about one new letter a week, his mother, Sonni Deevers, said.

The school got involved with the Connect and Join “Connect With the Troops” program after Sheryl Friedman, a fifth-grade teacher and the school’s student council advisor, surfed the Internet for a community service project the school could work on.

“Every year at Christmas time we try to choose some projects where we reach beyond our school, … and our student council president, his dad actually served in Iraq and has just returned, and (the student) wanted to do something for the troops,” she said. “I didn’t really know what would be a good thing to do. So I went on-line, and I just happened to find the Connect With the Troops site with the scrapbook. And I brought it back, and the kids really liked it because all the kids could do it.”

Each of Blakesburg Elementary’s 136 pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade students created a scrapbook page thanking the troops, Friedman said. The tributes to the servicemembers -- including crayon drawings, glittering pieces of art and hand-written notes -- were more than just a way to boost the morale of men and women serving overseas. They served as a teaching tool, as well. Friedman said he had realized that, at least at the fifth-grade level, some of the students didn’t have a good understanding about what was happening overseas.

“We talked a lot about patriotism and the troops and how a lot of (servicemembers) wouldn’t be home for the holidays,” she said. “We wanted the kids to understand … that there were people over there fighting for our freedom and safety and they would not be able to be home … with their families. So one way we could help them is to make the scrapbook pages … and let them know that we’re thinking of them, that we’re proud of them and just maybe cheer them up a little bit for the holidays.”

That thought also applied to the members of the 224th Engineer Battalion, who were at the school for the day.

“Everything that the American people do and the support that’s been shown is just incredible,” Army Master Sgt. Steven Haigh said, mentioning the boxes his unit received from strangers while in Iraq. “It’s just very encouraging to know that people are behind you and behind what you’re doing.”

Christie Vilsack, wife of Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, was also on hand for the ceremony. She applauded the school’s participation in Connect and Join’s program as well as Dennis’ initiative.

“It’s about creating community and creating connections between people and helping those who have served their country understand that we care about them … and the sacrifices their families have made,” Vilsack said. “Linda (Dennis) has provided an amazing opportunity for the families of (servicemembers) and everybody to feel like their part of a community and they’re contributing something to this effort.”

Though the ceremony was a thank you to the whole school, Sawyer didn’t escape the proceedings without some individual recognition. Dennis presented Sawyer with an audio version of “The Night Before Christmas” for his efforts to support both troops in general and sight-impaired servicemembers specifically.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, several students worked through lunch to create a few more pages of gratitude for the Connect With the Troops scrapbook. Dennis plans to officially present the book, which contains nearly 25,000 pages made by American school children, to the military during the halftime festivities of the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, in Fort Worth, Texas, on Dec. 23.

A copy of all of the pages will help the Blakesburg students and all other contributors make their mark in history, Dennis said.

“Our offices are turned upside down because we’re scanning every page, and we’re putting then on a CD, and we’re delivering them to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, which is the archiving of memories from veterans,” she said. “While these children are not veterans, their messages to our veterans are very important.”

Since Sawyer’s page can’t be scanned, his will be framed and presented to the Veterans History Project with the CD.

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Related Sites:
Connect and Join
America Supports You

Click photo for screen-resolution imageSawyer Deevers, 5, a kindergartener at Blakesburg Elementary School in Iowa reads what he has just typed on his Brailler on Dec. 15, 2006. Sawyer has been blind since birth, but the machine allows him to participate in regular classroom activities like making scrapbook pages for Connect and Join's "World's Largest and Greatest Scrapbook" thanking the troops. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageWyatt Klyn, 8, works on a page for Connect and Join's "World's Largest and Greatest Scrapbook" honoring servicemembers Dec. 15. All 136 Blakesburg (Iowa) Elementary School pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade students created a page for the scrapbook, including Sawyer Deevers, 5, who has been blind since birth. He wrote his message to the troops in Braille. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBlakesburg (Iowa) Elementary School students listen to Sheryl Friedman, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, speak during an assembly Dec. 15, 2006. The assembly was held in their honor so Linda Dennis, founder of Connect and Join, could thank them for the scrapbook pages they made for her organization's "World's Largest and Greatest Scrapbook" thanking the troops. Members of the Iowa National Guard's 224th Engineer Battalion also attended the assembly. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley   
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