"Dear Soldier: Thank you for making our country safer every day. I am very grateful for all the hard work you have put in. I am in sixth grade and I love to sing. I am in chorus and I am in NYSSMA."
At Christmas, 500–600 letters were sent to soldiers. For Valentine's Day, another hefty batch of 500-plus letters were written and sent. And for Armed Forces Day, May 21, between 500 and 1,000 letters will be handwritten by students at Minisink Valley schools and sent to U.S. soldiers around the world. Since 2012, students here have written thousands of letters to thousands of soldiers and veterans throughout the world.
The idea came when music teacher Daniel Bradley, a member of the Minisink Valley Teachers Association, walked through a store and saw stacks of discounted holiday cards. He bought 10 boxes, and had his chorus students write cards to soldiers. Then the middle school students in this rural, Orange County school sent cards.
But holiday cards weren't enough, says Bradley, whose passion for the project runs deeper than an inkwell.
"I want to thank them for their service year round — in the hot months of May and June in the desert," he says. His own family was changed by war: His father was a World War II veteran and his brother served in both Korea and Vietnam.
Instead of having students simply sign cards, Bradley decided they would handwrite letters.
"I think when you write personally, so many aspects of your personality come through," Bradley says.
The project helps students with penmanship. Teachers check the content, and accuracy in spelling and grammar. The letters do not include the students' last names or any contact information other than the name of their school.
"But the most important things are their higher-thinking skills, their empathy for soldiers, their sense of community service, and their concept of gratitude," Bradley says.
Teenagers, he says, often just expect things. They take things for granted, like running water.
"Dear soldier: Thank you for giving me the best Valentine's wish ever ... you!!! Thank you for protecting me and my family. I appreciate it more than you imagine. Never give up! McKenzie."
What started as a classroom project spread to the entire district, like wafts of musical notes. High school music teacher Vic Izzo, intermediate music teacher Jeanne MacDonald, and elementary music teachers Megahn Hughes and Cliff Loretto became the point people for the project.
Classroom aide Becky Olah, a member of CSEA, helps coordinate the letter-writing campaigns and started the American Legion Kids Club, which meets in the school. Her husband was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
Students pack the letters into boxes with goodies, treats and puzzles. Many students here have relatives in the service.
"I support all active soldiers and veterans," says student and American Legion Kids Club member Adrianna. The club members send packages, food and toiletries to soldiers. Her great-grandfather, his twin, and their three brothers served in World War II, she says. Her cousin was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Another student's grandfather was drafted during the Vietnam War. "I remember he told me he actually got shot in the leg," says Michael. "They're very brave and strong heroes to risk their lives ... and it might not even be their own country that they're helping!"
Some soldiers write back. Butch Cafferky, retired Air Force, was one of them.
"Dear kids from Minisink Valley Middle School: I hope all of you know how much it means to get care packages or letters. For some of us, we don't have family back home. So it's good to know that we are serving a purpose."
Cafferky, who now lives in West Virginia, worked as an engineer on cooling systems, a vital service in a region where temperatures reached 140–150 degrees in the desert.
"A lot of people do not have anybody. They're in the middle of nowhere and sometimes they have nobody to call," he says. "To get a letter like that ... I was deployed in the desert in Afghanistan and they sent a whole care package and thank you cards. It actually meant a lot. They made our deployment. I don't have kids of my own."
Another soldier, Alex Stewart, a Minisink alumni, sent a video to students, urging them to do their best in school.
Bradley weaves the soldier theme throughout some of the music programs as well. For one production, a girl dressed as a sailor and a boy as a soldier while singing "All I want for Christmas is you!"
"It's all tied in," says Bradley, as students imagine what it's like to be away from home and in the service.
"Thank you for all your hard work, and good luck. I'm sure you will do amazing things. Thanks, Sydney."