PELAHATCHIE, Miss. - Students in Belinda Willis' first-grade class at Pelahatchie Elementary School in Pelahatchie, Mississippi, created construction paper flags for Veterans Day 2014. When they made their artwork, they had no idea it would result in a special visit.
The class donated the flags to a local restaurant to be given to service members during their meal.
U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Darren Mitchell, operations noncommissioned officer with the 412th Theater Engineer Command, received a packet of coupons and various offers during his dinner on Veterans Day, but one item in his packet really struck him.
"I thought it was really interesting, in my bag I saw an American flag that was made from construction paper that was very creative with a star on it," said Mitchell.
He wanted to meet the child who created something so dear to him, he said.
Mitchell arranged to meet the child, Amora McDiffett, 7, in Willis' classroom Jan. 21. He thanked the entire class for their efforts in supporting the troops and presented Amora with a 412th TEC pin.
"The students have been shown first-hand how important it is to do their very best no matter the task," said Mijia Ward, assistant principal, Pelahatchie Elementary School in an email. "Pelahatchie Elementary has never had anyone get recognized for a piece of artwork that wasn't submitted for a contest or competition. These students did this project in class recognizing veterans for their service and in return, one of their classmates, Amora, was recognized. I think this will make the students take more time and effort on their work and other activities."
During his presentation, Mitchell had to pause and collect himself while speaking to the class because the visit had a strong effect on him.
"Just to interact with the young kids and to see how they acknowledge the members of the military that support and defend this country, just the reaction on their face is just heart fulfilling to me: To see how much the kids really appreciate the American Soldiers," he said. "I got a little compassionate and had to pause when speaking to the young kids. It was a great opportunity just to share, just to be in the mix of the kids and acknowledging them for appreciating the Soldiers."
While Amora was recognized, Ward believes this visit was inspiring for another student as well.
"The visit from Sgt. 1st Class Mitchell meant a great deal for not only Amora McDiffett, but for several students in Mrs. Willis' first-grade class," she said. "However, It gave one specific little boy the opportunity to see a Soldier in uniform, up close. He had recently mentioned he wanted to be a Soldier in the Army. In addition, this same student was able to stand next to Sgt. 1st Class Mitchell to lead his class in the Pledge of Allegiance."
Ward saw this as a rare opportunity for the school.
"This kind of interaction under normal circumstances wouldn't happen, because we just don't have many volunteers from the military in our school," she said. "We do have a few parents who are in the military but seldom visit the school in uniform or can volunteer their time due to work schedules."
Mitchell saw this as fortuitous to do something constructive for these children.
"It gives the kids a chance to value us in uniform and see a positive role model: Encouraging them to do something effective for their country, state or even for themselves," he said. "Being a positive role model is the most important of it all."
This interaction was also helpful to encourage the children to work hard to succeed.
"I think it is important for these visits to occur, because we can always tell people what we are doing, but seeing it in action makes a huge difference. Our students know that we love them, want the best for them and expect them to do their very best work," said Ward. "By allowing visitors to come in the school only adds value to what we communicate to our students daily. When students know other people, outside the school, care about their success it inspires them to work even harder."
The visit also provided affirmation to those at the school for the work they are doing.
"We are honored that Sgt. 1st Class Mitchell chose to spotlight one of our students. His visit was what the students and teachers of Pelahatchie Elementary needed to continue being encouraged and motivated to work hard and strive for excellence," said Ward.
"Our Pride Pledge that we recite daily is as follows: 'I am Polite, I am Responsible, I have Integrity, I am Determined to be the best, I strive for Excellence, I Am the Pride of Pelahatchie.' As we recite this pledge each morning school is in session, we want our students to exhibit some part of the pledge each day," she added. "The recognition of Amora let's us know that we are working in the right direction and doing the right things for the students and community of Pelahatchie, Mississippi."