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Gummi Bears, Gardetto's, And Gratitude

What are three things a Naval Reservist from Albuquerque has in common with middle school students on Whidbey Island? You guessed it: Gummi Bears, Gardetto’s snack mix, and above all else they share a mutual respect and thankfulness for each other.

Memorial Day 2006, at Langley Middle School was observed in Mrs. Kizer’s sixth grade classes like every year since the wars began—with letters and cards handmade with stickers and glitter and a whole lot of love. With help from a volunteer the 140 cards were split up and mailed to names from AnySoldier.com (men and women willing to receive and distribute mail from unknown sources). Random names, random choices, but deliberate thanks.

Ray Griffith, usually a fireman from New Mexico, today a Naval reservist in Qalat, Afghanistan received a package of letters and responded. He sent pictures, answered questions, and connected with students and staff. Over the summer, packages of snack food and current magazines were sent to him. In August, he flew a dedicated flag and mailed it to Langley Middle School. Nice story, but it didn’t end there.

The flag inspired four current sixth graders to start a care package drive—called Treats for Troops. They held bake sales to raise money to purchase goodies and also pay for postage. The sixth and seventh graders both responded and over thirty-five boxes were packed and shipped to both Ray and other service people. In October, a community member stepped forward to donate her framing expertise and built a shadow box for the flag and its accompanying certificate. The framed flag was presented at the school’s Veteran’s Day assembly with students reading a poem called Old Glory (a favorite of Ray’s) and a seventh grader singing Proud to be an American.

Winter generated paper snowflakes and New Year’s cards, Valentine’s Day brought hearts and March gave way to a Girl Scout cookie drive—all mail sent to a stranger half a world away. A few special requests filtered back to students and were put in the mail. But frankly, anything was warmly received—his local 7-11 wasn’t well stocked as his picture of dusty crates and glass bottles of beverages showed. With each new box and each packet of notes, Ray responded with more pictures.

His work in Afghanistan had a humanitarian side—his unit built roads and dug wells, they labored side by side with local citizens. Students sent Beanie Babies which Ray gave to the workers with children and grandchildren. Sandals which he gave away, while on patrol, to girls who seemed as though they’d never seen Americans. Each photograph brought the stark beauty of the landscape and the poverty of its people into focus, each exchange deepened the students understanding and perspective of the responsibility facing our military.

And after all, the flag hanging in the school’s front hall flew during a rocket attack by the Taliban.

Ray is rotating home in time for Memorial Day 2007 and here too would be a logical ending, but no, Ray is coming to visit the last week of the school year. A husband and father of four, he’s coming to say thank you in person. To say the kids are excited to meet him is quite the understatement. They’re making plans, cooking up surprises.

Students and staff are planning a community potluck open to the public, a welcome assembly with a video of his photographs, and Ray will make classroom visits sharing his experiences during the school day on Friday. It’s a quick two day trip—the usual days off from his regular career with thanks to his fire chief for helping make that happen. It’s enough. Before he re-acclimates to his life he’s got one more stop; it’s Albuquerque to Langley via Afghanistan.

So on Flag Day, June 14th, 2007 consider this—Ray Griffith will be arriving at Langley Middle School welcomed by his fans of teenagers touched by his letters and honored by his gift of a flag. A year ago strangers, but this night dinner companions and friends. All are welcome at the potluck, June 14th at 6PM, in the Langley Middle School cafeteria. Bring a dish to share—there will surely be plenty of Gummi Bears and Gardetto’s.

Submitted by:

Amber Kizer

Amber Kizer’s debut novel, ONE BUTT CHEEK AT A TIME, will premiere in October 2007. She has personally sent mail weekly, and volunteered in her community to make it easy for others to do the same, since the invasion of Afghanistan—Most mail goes to people she’ll never meet, in thanks for protecting the freedoms she holds dear. Find her at http://www.AmberKizer.com




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