How a simple classroom assignment is opening hearts for our Veterans.
What happens when you take an army of Veterans, a classroom assignment and three extremely talented sixth graders and mix them together? Nobody could imagine what ended up being accomplished!
The story starts with three little girls, Angela Kohout and Madeline Murillo (both age 12) and Elizabeth Sagi (age 10). These amazing young ladies live in a suburb of Northern New Jersey overlooking the mighty Hudson River with beautiful views of the New York Skyline. They attend the 108 year old schoolhouse…Cliffside Park School #3 and were in Mr. Ryan’s sixth grade class.
These three friends devoured books, like they were chocolate bars, but not only could they read…they could write! Name the topic, name a genre…these young girls were some of the most creative and talented writers I have ever seen in over a decade of teaching.
So I gave them an option…continue writing 2-3 essays per week OR they could work as a group and write one 5,000 word book on any topic they wanted. The only requirement was that the story must include lots of different types of figurative language. Of course, the girls jumped at the opportunity to write ONE “book” and never have to write another one of Mr. Ryan’s essays ever again! But they quickly discovered that it wasn’t easy to come up with a topic that they were all passionate about and this “simple” classroom assignment (which was going to be a major portion of their grade) grounded to a halt before it even began. The young writers floundered for several days as I started to believe that I made a mistake as the days ticked away with no progress.
Finally, it was Memorial Day Weekend. I offered a little reward for any student that attended the local Memorial Day Ceremony sponsored by the Borough Council and the Cliffside Park American Legion Post 126. Angela and Madeline got together and attended the Memorial Day Ceremony on that warm sunny morning in Veterans Park. The flags flapped in the breeze, the trumpet sounded out that loneliness of tunes and all the men and women stood in silence remembering their friends and loved ones that were lost. This became a very solemn moment for the young attendees, but then it was as if lightning struck both of them at the same time. They turned to each other, quickly discussed and agreed…they wanted to write a book that honored America’s Veterans.
They grabbed their cell phones and called Elizabeth and explained their idea. Elizabeth agreed with them and then told her classmates about her cousin’s friend who served in the United States Army and when he returned from serving in the war overseas, he had something called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.) and that was it…the idea for their book was born.
They were going to write about a little girl named, Jewel, and her family who are dealing with the father’s P.T.S.D. after his return from serving overseas in the war.
The three girls worked feverishly for several weeks researching information about P.T.S.D (through websites, like the American Legion) and typing their story simultaneously through a special word processing program called Google Docs. The passion and zeal that they typed with would make any newspaper reporter jealous. By mid-June, their 5,000 word manuscript was complete and handed in for the grade.
Now, for all intensive purposes the story should be over. The girls would get their grade and we would all move on, but fate had a different plan. That very afternoon I was at home grading my papers and my father came in to the house and we started chatting. My dad, John Ryan (and a Vietnam Veteran), stopped mid-sentence when he saw the title of a story laying on the table, named Daddy’s Heart, My Heart, The Purple Heart. He picked it up and started reading it. He sat down and slowly turned the pages as he become engrossed in the story. When he finished, he stood up and handed me the story with two hands, paused and then in a most passionate and heart-felt voice, he said, “You need to do something special with this,” and then he walked away. I could of sworn he wiped away a tear from his eye. As I watched him walk away, I looked back at the story and started to wonder if the story was that powerful to affect a veteran.
I quickly set about taking another look at Daddy’s Heart. The next day, I made copies of the story and handed them out to a number of colleagues and the comments were overwhelming. Every single person raved about the story, the emotions, and the characters. As the excitement built, I reached out to Tony Frato, a local self-published author to get a professional author’s opinion. Tony came back the next day saying that as an author he was “jealous” of their writing and he offered his services to work with the girls to polish the story and show me how to self-publish the story into a book through a website called CreateSpace.
As word spread, so many community members volunteered their services. The girls meet with numerous people to revise their book and make improvements. Most changes were just cosmetic and the main story was kept completely intact, but the community involvement was vital to the success of this project. After revising the story for the 15th time, the girls were relieved that the typing and revising was over!
Then the girls got to have some fun, they performed a photo shoot at the school to create the photographs to match the story. The Cliffside Park American Legion was instrumental in obtaining the most important artifact for our photographs…a real Purple Heart, which was loaned to us by Korean War Veteran Richard Allen. (His story is another article on its own!) The school building was sweltering in that July sun, but the kids relished the idea of modeling for their book. Once the final pictures, were chosen…the book was off to the printers and Daddy’s Heart, My Heart, The Purple Heart officially went on sale in October on Amazon.
In the beginning, we knew we had a “diamond in the rough”, but once we polished up our little gem…even we were surprised by the reaction. The reviews and accolades began “pouring in”…the students received County and State Commendations and Citations and many Congratulatory Letters! Here are just a few quotes about the girls and Daddy’s Heart:
“My heart was heavy as I read this story of Jewel and her family dealing with PTSD. This is much more than an important read,..it's a public service in book form.” Veteran Steve Noakson
“The story not only evokes emotion, but it is also extremely educational…”
Raymond Zawacki, NJ Deputy Commissioner for Veterans Affairs: Trenton NJ
“You are an incredible example of excellence and a source of great pride…”
Robert McDonald, The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Washington D.C.
“Anyone who has been exposed to a veteran suffering from P.T.S.D. Be prepared to be hit at home. I couldn't help but flash back to my dad as he would scream in his sleep, cursing and yelling for us or somebody to hit the deck because incoming shells he must of been dreaming about. I think this is a fantastic way to bring more awareness to this horrible…disease. Not only will it help bring more awareness, but it does it in a manner that children can kind of get an understanding of how (PTSD) is not only hard for the Veteran, but also everyone around them.” Excerpted Facebook Entry: Jersey Brat
Some of the most fervent support has been from the American Legion. The Cliffside Park American Legion (Commander Carl Raincourt) purchased several dozen copies and donated them to veterans and the local VA Hospital and Home. The Bergen County American Legions (Commander Bob Salvini) was so moved by Daddy’s Heart, he arranged for every post in Bergen County to receive a copy of Daddy’s Heart. On top of that he invited the girls to present their book at the Legion’s County Monthly Meeting. (After presenting their book, the veterans truly made the girls feel like “movie stars” by asking them to autograph the donated books…the girls loved it.) Commander Salvini also arranged for Daddy’s Heart to be donated to every single library in Bergen County and he even arranged for the Governor of New Jersey to write personal letters to each of the girls! The American Legion’s support has been endless and because of their efforts hundreds of people are learning about the impact of P.T.S.D. on America’s Veterans.
Hundreds upon hundreds of copies of Daddy’s Heart, My Heart, The Purple Heart have been purchased in the United States and in Europe! It makes one proud to know that as this book is read…awareness and compassion for our veterans and what they are going through is growing and we still can’t believe that this whole project started out as just a “simple” classroom assignment!
To order your copy go to: http://www.amazon.com/Daddys-Heart-My-Purple/dp/1517291879