FRONT ROYAL, VA–Last year, Randolph-Macon Academy Middle School teacher Toby Allanson took what had been a small family tradition and turned it into a project for his seventh grade civics class, when he took all of his students to the VA Hospital in Martinsburg, WV to hand out gifts and sing Christmas carols.
“I am trying to teach my seventh grade civics students a sense of community,” Allanson explained. “Students need to learn that the world is much bigger than themselves. There are those out there who have sacrificed for the freedoms that we so often take for granted.”
With that in mind, Allanson dubbed this year’s event “Operation Thank You” and began laying the groundwork to make it even better.
“After the success of last year’s trip many people asked if I would let them know so that they could contribute to the gift-giving,” he said. “This year we collected items beforehand and it was awesome. We collected 91 blankets—our goal was 75—21 pairs of slipper socks, 24 bottles of lotion and lots of liquid soap.”
On Tuesday, December 16, 2014, the students loaded onto a bus with their gifts in-hand. They were joined by R-MA Chorus Director Michael DeMato and six of his chorus students.
“The students arrived and started visiting patients in two different wards,” said Allanson. “Most of these patients were wheeled in as they were not able to get around on their own. We saw about 50 patients downstairs and made sure that each person received a gift and a thank-you.”
“It was cool to see how the veterans reacted when we came with the blankets and stuff,” said Alan Williams, a seventh grade day student from Front Royal. “They were very thankful. Some of them were [excited].”
While the gifts were given out, the R-MA Upper School chorus group set up in a common room and sang songs for the veterans, with eventually about 20 veterans in the room listening and singing along. The students then went upstairs in the hospital and repeated the process. At this point, they also had the opportunity to sit and talk to some of the veterans.
“One of the highlights for the students was meeting one of the patients there who was born in 1907,” commented Allanson. “He is 107 years old and doesn’t look a day over 70.”
“He looked really young,” Williams agreed.
Allanson said that most of the Veterans to whom the students distributed gifts live at the hospital. For some, the R-MA students might be the only visitors that they have this holiday season.
“I liked being able to help them and give them gifts because I know they don’t get a lot of visitors,” said Sarah Ponn, a seventh grade day student from Marshall. Sarah takes an eighth grade social studies class, but attended the event as part of the chorus.
“The trip was extremely successful,” said Allanson. “All of the students had a great time talking to the veterans and sharing with them. The veterans shook the students’ hands and thanked them over and over. There were some who even shed tears of joy over the fact that the students took time out of their day to come and spend time with them. The feeling was mutual. We plan to do this again next year and do it bigger and better.”
Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA), founded in 1892, is a college-preparatory, coeducational day and boarding school for students in grades 6 through 12. Students in grades 9-12 participate in R-MA’s 91st Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) and have the option to participate in a flight program. R-MA is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and is located in Front Royal, VA.