Citizenship matters

By Barbara Gruener

Sometimes We Were Brave coverPat Brisson’s Sometimes We Were Brave is tops among illustrated picture books for tackling the emotionally charged and extremely challenging issues that come with military service and sacrifice.

A former elementary school teacher and librarian, Ms. Brisson first became interested in this subject when she traveled to Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Panama and Guantanamo Bay as a visiting author. She tells me that she was struck “by the sacrifices expected of these children, who didn’t volunteer but are still giving service to their country by doing without the presence of a parent at very important times in their lives,” which accounts for her uncanny ability to address the deployment of a parent so directly yet with such grace and sensitivity.

Telling the tale in the first person lends authenticity and credibility to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of Jerome (and his dog Duffy) trying to show courage but struggling with missing their mom when she’s gone. It’s just so real: sometimes they have bad days, sometimes they get surprises, sometimes they have accidents, sometimes they get treats, sometimes they are afraid.

Complemented by France Brassard’s amazingly gentle and strikingly soft illustrations, Sometimes We Were Brave will comfort and validate students whose parents are on active duty and serving in scary, far-away places, and it will undoubtedly stir up compassion and caring in the hearts of their friends and class families.

We cannot do enough for these children while their parent or loved one is away. Some services we provide at Westwood include offering preschool free of charge to kids like Jerome, making counseling support available individually and in small groups for these students, and pairing military children with a high-school Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL) student for weekly mentoring visits. We’ve also helped our older students write letters to the families of fallen soldiers to express our gratitude for their service and let them know that we will never forget.

Our Santas for Our Soldiers service-learning project supports military personnel on active duty overseas each November. We ask for the names and addresses of local soldiers from our Westwood family whom we can adopt. This past year, with help from The Rotary to pay for postage, we sent 129 care packages in time for the holiday. Soldiers love to get our goodies, of course, but I’m told time and time again that our hand-drawn pictures, homemade cards, and notes of thanks and encouragement mean just as much to them as the snacks and basic-need items that we include in the boxes.

A fun way to help students reflect on what their Soldier Adoptions mean to these heroes overseas is to follow-up the shipment with a video conference. (Watch videos here.) On several occasions, we’ve used Skype to connect with soldiers halfway across the world as they open up our packages right on the big screen in front of the students.

If you do not have a connection to anyone in particular but you’d like to support the military, visit Operation Gratitude online to find out how you can join forces to make a difference.

What impact does supporting those who serve have on our little citizens? When asked by a news reporter why she wanted to help the soldiers, six-year-old Maddie replied, “It makes my heart happy and I think it makes their heart happy, too.”

Try any or all of these ideas to put citizenship into action on your campus.

Barbara Gruener is a school counselor at Westwood Elementary in Friendswood, TX, a winner of the 2009 CEP National School of Character Award. For more information on Westwood’s program, visit its website.