Family members of Paradise Knoll Elementary School students and staff who have served in the United States military were honored at its annual Veterans Recognition Ceremony held at the school on Nov. 8.
The event itself has gained notoriety and recognition both within and outside the West Milford School District over the years for its educational value for students, as well as for its promotion of support programs for veterans and military service personnel, and better understanding and cultivation of patriotism throughout the community.
The annual event is spearheaded by Physical Education Teacher Jill Cullen, and started more than six years ago.
Her ideas were immediately embraced by the staff, and the program has since grown and become a model for other local schools.
Every elementary school across the district now hosts similar events; with the common goal of "teaching younger generations of students the value, importance, and responsibility we as citizens have to remember, recognize, and honor our veterans."
Schools throughout the district have also since become involved in support projects for military personnel and veterans such as Operation Gratitude, Jeans for Troops, Operation Shoebox, and Wreaths Across America.
"At Paradise Knoll Elementary School, we are constantly striving to make learning meaningful for our students, and our Veterans Day program has been added to greatly enhance our study of American History," Cullen said during the event. "This event has reminded us to hold discussion about the commitment and sacrifices our service men and women have dedicated to the U.S. military."
The Veterans were treated to a special breakfast the morning of the event, and were then escorted through the hallways of the school that had been decorated with patriotic artwork and personal tributes written by students about their "Heroes"- their family's veterans.
West Milford High School Pipes and Drums members Haley Lindstrom and Madison Babcock played the bagpipes.
Younger students took turns reading an original composition they created for the occasion- "The ABC's of Veterans."
Students shared what they learned about what a veteran is, what it means to be a veteran, heroes, and about patriotism in a video presentation.
Patriotic songs of appreciation were sung to the veterans by the students and staff.
Veterans unable to attend the ceremony in person were recognized by photo pins worn by their family members, as well as with a moment of silence that was held in their honor during the ceremony.
A passionate start
Cullen's passion to create a veteran's recognition ceremony at the school stemmed from her early conversations with students, families, and coworkers.
She discovered that many of them had family members who served or were currently serving in the US military.
Cullen herself spent many of her childhood years on military bases as the daughter of a member of the US Air Force.
"As my father served in the USAF during the first 10 years of my life, I lived being a military daughter on two different military bases, and then finally we returned home to New Jersey, residing only a few miles from McGuire AFB and Fort Dix Army Base in Southern New Jersey," she said.
She said that her mother worked various jobs on base and was the treasurer of the Air Force Wives Club, while she and her sister enjoyed their short walks to school on base and their trips to the commissary, or PX.
"All of these are warm childhood memories that I have," she said, "but I know that somewhere, my father’s commitment to the military wasn’t always easy and he made a lot of sacrifices for our country.''
Over the years, Cullen said she had relished the many stories shared at her family's dinner table about members of her own family that served in the military, such as those about her “Poppy” (grandfather) serving in the Army-Air-Corps in the 1940s under his commanding officer, Captain Ronald Reagan; who later became the 40th President of the United States.
In 1988, Cullen's father, Frank C. White, Jr., retired as Senior Master Sgt. of the United States Air Force, with “2-Meritorious service medals, 4-Air Force Commendation Medals, and many Vietnam Service Medals, just to name a few''; that Cullen fondly recalls being respectfully displayed in her childhood home.
Cullen proudly shares her family's story, a few photos of her family life on military bases during her childhood, and photos of her dad in uniform along with a brief summary of his service record/history, during the ceremony each year.
Students and staff members also provide photos and service history information for their family's attending Veterans for the event.