JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. — What began as a lesson in service has bridged a connection between a Jeffersonville elementary student and U.S. soldiers thousands of miles away.
In April, Bridgepoint Elementary School students participated in a day of kindness, with projects ranging from putting together care packages to benefit homeless in the community at Exit Zero, to cleaning up the playground, to writing letters to service men and women stationed abroad.
Josh Lawson, in third grade at the time, was among the students who wrote to the soldiers. Although he didn't know at the time who his letter would be going to, he was excited and full of questions.
"I asked how it was like in the Army," Josh said. "I told him (about) my friends, and that I was going to be in the Army."
When Josh returned to school this fall, he had a letter waiting for him from U.S. Army Capt. Israel Johnson, thanking him for his letter. A few weeks later, he got another package, containing a second letter and some gifts from Johnson and his fellow soldiers — German Legos, a flag that had flown over their base in Afghanistan, patches they'd worn in the combat zone.
"I think it meant a lot to him and even more so his family," Jackie Diaz, principal at Bridgepoint, said. "To see him have an interaction with someone, that someone took the time thousands and thousands of miles away to care about him, was a huge deal to him."
Josh, who wants to join the Marines, was inspired by the interaction, and he and the soldier plan to keep corresponding.
"He said ... he hopes I would make a big difference in the (military)," Josh told the News and Tribune during an interview at school.
In Johnson's second letter, he imparted some knowledge that the Army has him teach his soldiers — lessons in core values like loyalty, duty, respect, plus selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.
"We teach our soldiers that if they live these values, they are leaders," Johnson wrote. "If you do the right thing, even when it is hard, people will follow you and do the right thing too."
He also explained the significance of each of the patches — one a guardian angel patch, to show that soldiers look out for and protect one another, one representing NATO and one with the American flag.
"The American flag is for you to always remember that America is a great country," he wrote. "It is part of the American spirit to help people that need help ... now that you have the American flag patch, you have to help other people that need help too."
Diaz said the kindness day was a way to teach the students important skills about being compassionate and giving.
"It's a skill that people have to learn," the principal said. "We don't come out as being unselfish — this is a time for our kids to start looking outside themselves ... to see our world as a global community rather than just their household or their school or even just Jeffersonville. (They are) outreaching from here and seeing how we're all connected as humans."
She said the letters also tie in with the school system's College to Career Readiness initiative, which helps expose students to as many different careers and pathways as possible.
"To me, this was a step in getting that done," Diaz said. "It is introducing our kids to the service community ... and the Armed Forces — it helps them to start exploring and understanding that this is something they can do."
Communicating with the soldiers also helps students make a connection with the military beyond what they see on TV or hear adults talking about.
"It makes it more real to our kids as something that's attainable," Diaz said.
Season Neal, third-grade teacher at the school, said she and the students had a lot of fun with the letters, which also doubled as a lesson in letter-writing.
"We just worked on our writing and grammar and talking about being compassionate," Neal said. "It just turned into one big fun project.
"They drew pictures ... once it started, everybody wanted to do more and it tied in with our curriculum really well."
But it wasn't only third-graders who sent their support and their questions to the military. Other grades, including Sally Staples' kindergarten class, took part.
"There were lots of questions," Staples said. "One little boy, he wanted to know about the mission. 'What was your mission? Where did you go?'
"They wanted to know more about it."
The students' letters were important, too, to the service men and women who received them. U.S. Air Force Capt. Brent Lasher, the son-in-law of Staples, helped distribute the letters to personnel stationed in Afghanistan.
"We thoroughly enjoyed reading the students' messages and thank-you letters," he wrote to Diaz. "Being halfway around the world from our families and friends is difficult, but with the support of you and your students, we are proud to have our purpose renewed."
Diaz said this was something she'd also learned from being in a military family herself; her husband is now retired from the U.S. Navy.
"These letters don't just get tossed away," she said. "It means a lot to our service members. It's a connection back home, in a world where there (can be) a lot of adversarial relationships with the military.