by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Sometimes, the best things are right under your own nose.
At least that’s what Christy Sheetz, the seventh- and eighth-grade theology teacher at Most Pure Heart of Mary Grade School in southwest Topeka, said about the eighth grade’s recent class service project.
“We have been preparing for the sacrament of confirmation, and I was hopeful that my students could participate in an all-class service project,” Sheetz said. “Many of them have performed service projects on their own, but there is great value in participating in service altogether.
“I feel like it provides vibrancy and life not only to the surrounding community, but to the participants as well. It brings people closer together in mission.”
One day, while passing by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on her way to school, Sheetz said an idea came to her.
“Sometimes the best opportunities are right next door!” she said. “The VA hospital is just blocks from Most Pure Heart of Mary School. My dad is a Vietnam veteran, and [my dad and I] access the VA from time to time.”
“I’ve always thought that our school and the VA are so close,” Sheetz continued. “If we could do something there, it would be a great opportunity for our students to show support for our veterans.”
Sheetz’s next step was to enlist the support of the school administration. That part, she said, was easy.
“My principal, Eric White, maintains that our kids have missed out on so much [because of the pandemic]. He believes that whatever we can do to provide them with opportunities to perform service or grow in community is a worthy endeavor,” Sheetz said. “I remember I texted the idea to him, and he just came back with: ‘Sounds good.’”
With the principal’s backing, Sheetz turned to the logistics of scheduling a “walking field trip” to “visit” residents of the VA’s Community Living Center. Since the eighth grade class still operates in cohorts, two trips were planned with careful consideration given to the residents’ health and safety, as well as that of the students.
Additionally, Sheetz also tried to minimize the disruption to the rest of the students’ school day.
With the logistics out of the way, Sheetz sent home permission slips and was elated when every student returned theirs.
“The parents were in full support. Every single student in the eighth grade had a permission slip and was allowed to go,” Sheetz said. “I think our parents realize that giving service to others is worth any risk we might have encountered. Our families are simply incredible.”
So, on March 19, Sheetz led the two groups on their “walking field trips,” the first part of which was the visit to the veterans at the Community Living Center. On the way back to school, both groups stopped at the Apple Market, a nearby grocery store, to purchase food for the schoolwide boxed food drive organized by Catholic Charities.
The students were only the second group of guests the veterans had received during the past year due to COVID-19, and Sheetz said that fact alone brought smiles — not just to the faces of the veterans themselves but to the visitors as well. The best one, she said, came from a man whose nickname is Uncle Bob.
“He was quite animated and kept inviting us inside. Uncle Bob was so happy to see us — and that joy — it just spread. As we were leaving, one of my eighth grade boys looked at me and said, ‘Uncle Bob is a hero.’ I couldn’t agree more,” Sheetz said.
The students, Sheetz said, learned a lot during the visit.
“I think they learned that our presence matters, their smiles matter. It was really hard to leave that day,” she said. “The vets didn’t want us to go and the kids didn’t want to go either. That’s what I will remember most. That the kids didn’t want to leave and knew that being there was important. More than anything, we learned that we need each other.”
Eighth grader Katelyn Norris agreed.
“We got to bring excitement to the people at the VA. And during COVID, they don’t get a lot of visitors,” said Norris. “So, it was very nice to make their day.”
Additionally, Norris said she gained a deeper respect for our nation’s military veterans.
“They could have died [fighting for our freedom],” she said. “You need to respect them, you should go see them and you should thank them for their service.”