Westside and Macclenny Elementary Schools and the PreK-Kindergarten Center sponsored programs last Thursday to celebrate and pay tribute to local veterans who have served or are actively serving in the military.
The programs included music and recognition of past and present veterans.
According to Pre-K Center principal Bonnie Jones, this year’s salute to Veterans Day was a bit more ceremonious than in past years.
It was part due to special guest Winton Stokley. The 89-year-old Navy veteran from Macclenny was part of the Normandy Invasion in France in 1944 during World War II.
“He was there,” said Ms. Jones. “He flew over Normandy on D-Day.”
The children got into the spirit by making patriotic banners to celebrate the occasion and to welcome and thank veterans for their service. Particularly striking was a special three-dimensional flag.
Children traced their hands on colored construction paper, then cut out the shapes with scissors. The cutouts were used to create the red and white stripes and the blue field with stars. The curled fingers of the cutouts gave the impression of movement, as if the flag were waving in the breeze.
At the sight of the banners, Mr. Stokley became very emotional. “He literally had tears in his eyes,” said Ms. Jones.
Macclenny resident Joyce Peterson is a close friend of Mr. Stokley. She and husband Gunnar take the veteran to church in Jacksonville each Sunday.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time he has ever been publicly recognized for his military service and it means everything to him,” she told The Press by phone on Veterans Day.
According to Ms. Jones, Mr. Stokley reflected on his life and expressed heart-felt sentiments about his homeland when he addressed children and adults in attendance.
“What a blessing to grow up in the greatest nation in the world,” he told them.
Sanderson resident Cory Nielsen, a National Guardsman and veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom was also a guest at the program. The vet brought back an American flag from Afghanistan which flew over his camp. He presented the flag to the school last spring.
That flag was formally dedicated to the Pre-K Center during the program and is now on permanent display in a custom made mahogany frame designed and constructed by Macclenny resident Ken Lankford.
Macclenny Elementary’s Veterans Day Celebration program opened with school superintendent Sherrie Raulerson thanking veterans for their self-sacrifice and service.
“Which is why we can be here celebrating Veterans Day and taking advantage of all the opportunities this country offers,” she stated.
Music teacher Kanita Bishop did an outstanding job directing students as they performed the unique “Allegiance Rap.”
From the stage students positively wowed spectators with their call and response version of the verses of the American Pledge of Allegiance set to music.
Veterans attending the program were recognized, including Macclenny Elementary’s very own Ellie Cumpston, who served in the Air Force and now teaches third grade. The veterans were presented with small American flags by some of the students.
Special displays were created in the front office and in the lobby of the school as well. The office display was courtesy of local veteran First Class Petty Officer Robert Dodd and reflected his tour of duty in Iraq.
It included a gas mask, manuals for an M16A1 rifle and a grenade launcher, native crafts and money, a patch that said “Operation Enduring Freedom” and photos of Mr. Dodd in a village street with Iraqi children. There was even a photo of him climbing up a coconut tree.
The lobby display highlighted every branch of military service, through WWII to the present.
Westside Elementary’s program was kicked off by an appearance of the Baker County Sheriff’s Office color guard. The Merry Melodies choir then led the audience in the national anthem, followed by readings of expository stories written by first graders on the subject “Proud to be an American.”
Second graders presented traditional and contemporary patriotic songs such as “Yankee Doodle Boy,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Thankful for the USA.”
The meanings of United States symbols were also highlighted and veterans present were recognized and honored.
“One of the main messages we wanted to get across to the children is that their roots run deep and that people have sacrificed so they can live in a land that is free,” said Westside principal Lynne Fort.