By FELICIA KRIEG
---- — SARANAC — High school students surprised North Country Honor Flight veterans in May at the World War II monument in Washington, D.C.
They were members of the Freedom Club, an organization at Saranac Central School that honors veterans.
“It just so happened that we were lucky enough to go (to Washington) the same time as the Honor Flight, so we got to share that experience with them,” said Kaylee Couture, who was president and treasurer of the 36-member club this past school year.
“It was an honor to see their faces and how they enjoyed it and appreciated it.”
The Honor Flight Network, with a local chapter in the North Country, is a nonprofit that takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials that stand there in their honor. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.
World War II veteran Robert Brooks was there, and he was overwhelmed with emotion when he saw that the students at the memorial were from the North Country.
“I think the young people that we have in this area, believe me, are really on top of everything. They really are.”
DINNER FOR VETS
Before she graduated in June, Couture organized a dinner to honor local veterans.
Her parents, Rick and Tonya Couture, her uncle Gary Hart, and her grandparents, Richard and Georgette Couture, helped get donations and prepared the meal, which was attended by about 150 veterans and members of their families.
“Tonight is just something, another memory that will stick with us for the rest of our lives,” Brooks said at the dinner.
“It’s just a very happy time,” said World War II veteran Merwin Cowles, who was also part of the first North Country Honor Flight.
Couture said the Freedom Club has changed her for the better.
“It makes me value them (veterans) because they’ve made me grow as a person to realize how important our country is and how I need to become more of a citizen and help out as much as I can.”
‘BIGGER AND BIGGER’
It all started about 12 years ago when Saranac High School teacher Elise Beaulieu taught a lesson on homeless veterans in her senior sociology class.
Then she invited local veterans groups to her classroom to speak to the students; the kids also collected can openers to donate to homeless vets.
The next year, the students collected food items for veterans in need and collected money to build handicap ramps for disabled veterans.
The club raised enough to build three ramps that year, Beaulieu said, and at least one has been constructed every year since then.
“It just kept getting bigger and bigger.”
Then a yearly trip was instituted, when students tour the 9-11 terrorism sites in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg, Pa.
Past club members sewed a quilt that is on display at the Pentagon and raised money to dedicate a cobblestone where the Twin Towers stood to the memory of the late Joshua Sullivan, a former Freedom Club president.
The Freedom Club collects about 1,000 pounds of food every year that is distributed locally by the North Country Veterans Association, Beaulieu said.
About three years ago, homeroom groups competed to collect items to send to U.S. Marine Evan Dashnaw, who was serving in Afghanistan.
Dashnaw is a former student of Beaulieu’s.
The Saranac Central students were able to raise $900 to send 58 packages to him, with items provided by the club and Dashnaw’s family.
“We took care of the whole platoon for a long time.”
Despite the numerous fundraising campaigns, the education component of Beaulieu’s mission hasn’t stopped.
She teaches her sociology students about post traumatic stress disorder, which has affected many veterans, past and present.
“It’s a big part of my program.”
Beaulieu said the service and sacrifice of veterans affords Americans their liberties.
“Because of them, we have the country that we have and lifestyle we have and the freedoms. It’s really important that we take care of them.”
She isn’t paid to be the Freedom Club adviser, she said.
“I consider it my community service.”
Before Brooks and other World War II veterans met with the Freedom Club earlier this year, they didn’t know what to expect from that younger generation.
“... at first I said, ‘What are we going to say?’” Brooks said. “But they were so attentive ...”
Beaulieu said the students immediately bonded with the veterans.
“It took it to the next level. It was like the complete circle,” she said.
The knowledge the veterans have to offer her students is invaluable to their education, Beaulieu said.
“I think it’s really important to hear the story from the person. Living history is so important. You lose that,” she said.
“You can’t get that from a book, but if you bond with someone and you hear their story, you’re never going to forget their story or the lesson.”
Beaulieu has faith that her students will carry what they learned in the Freedom Club with them throughout their lives.
“I think that my kids, especially this year, will really go out and spread this message,” she said. “I think that they will honor veterans.
“I think they will make sure that gets done.”
Email Felicia Krieg: email@example.comTwitter: @FeliciaKrieg