HALE – For virtually every major holiday of the year, numerous local military veterans are ensured well wishes, thanks to the students and staff at Hale Area Schools (HAS).
Among their other shows of support for the men and women who have served this country, the students frequently create handmade cards of thanks and appreciation. These are then doled out by Marlene Polishak to the veterans who reside at six different assisted living/nursing facilities in Tawas City and East Tawas, as well as at Hale Creek Manor.
In today’s tech-forward world, we can see the dwindling circulation of handmade cards, replaced with text messages and other electronic means. So, when the youngsters take time to create something artistic, from scratch, it makes the gesture all the more meaningful.
A veteran herself, Polishak has participated in the card distributions for 18 years on behalf of the groups with which she is involved – the Hale American Legion Post, Hale Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Auxiliary Post and Tawas VFW Auxiliary Post.
Since he was hired as the principal of HAS, nine years ago, Michael Bowman has also contributed to the card project and other veteran-related activities.
“Principal Bowman is a great, caring, patriotic citizen. He has supported our veterans in the area any way that he can,” Polishak praised. “He has the school children make cards for our veterans in rest homes and assisted living facilities for every holiday.”
Prior to COVID-19, Polishak said that Bowman also allowed veterans to come to the school and answer any questions the students had about what these individuals do to protect the country, its citizens and the freedom we enjoy.
“I believe that our kids need to experience those type of things; of those folks that have lived it,” Bowman said. “And I have a great deal of respect for that.”
When asked about his efforts, though, Bowman credits everyone else but himself, including Polishak, HAS teachers, students and the children’s parents.
When it comes to coordinating the card projects, Bowman notes that the staff are the backbone.
“The kids are so excited to do this; to give to these veterans,” he says, adding that cards are made for at least Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and, of course, Veterans Day. “It’s a little art project, a little something, and we try to make it as special as we possibly can.”
Polishak joined Bowman during the interview for this story on Feb. 9. She also shared that, pre-pandemic, she would take photos when she was allowed to go into the nursing homes and hand-deliver the cards. When she returned to HAS, she would bring the photos back for the children to see the reactions of the veterans – many of whom are left with tears in their eyes – as they received their gifts. “They’re so happy that a little kid would do this for them.”
Not every grade level participates in making the cards every single time, as their schedules vary. One holiday it may be second through fourth grade students who take part, and the next time around it may a different age group. But in any case, with there currently being 48 veterans in the various assisted living facilities, the students ensure that each person receives at least one card.
For example, this Valentine’s Day, Polishak picked up about 80 cards from the students. She visited the centers this past weekend to drop off the handmade creations to the veterans, along with balloons and boxes of candy.
“It’s so rewarding,” she expressed.
“Oh, absolutely. And the kids love it,” Bowman agreed, adding that the youngsters often ask how many cards they can make.
As soon as one holiday wraps up, he says the HAS team already begins prepping for the next event.
For instance, he asked the staff that morning if everybody was all set for St. Patrick’s Day for the veterans. “And they said, ‘We’ve already talked about it,’” he noted with a laugh, again giving credit to the employees for always staying on top of this.
He said the HAS teaching staff is outstanding when it comes to supporting veterans. “They’re hard workers anyway, but this little bit here really draws them together.”
Bowman adds that the veteran outreach has even become a part of the discussions at weekly staff meetings. Although it’s just a piece of the meetings, he says he thinks it’s a very integral piece which everybody looks forward to.
Aside from the cards, anyone who has attended a Veterans Day ceremony in Hale has also likely witnessed the work of HAS students and staff.
Not only is a full assembly hosted at the school each year, but teacher Shane Billingsley – who oversees the music program at HAS – also travels with the band and choir students to different locations in the area, so they can perform for veterans.
This includes a stop at the local American Legion Post, where the students sing and/or play music every year during the Legion’s annual Veterans Day Ceremony.
“Shane does such a good job, and I’m so pleased that he’s into it and has been working with us on it,” Bowman commented.
He said the band and choir participants typically visit a number of senior homes, as well.
“And then we go over to the Elks,” he continued, saying that this event usually draws in a couple hundred attendees, who give the students a standing ovation.
“It means a lot to people,” Polishak pointed out.
Marching band and choir members have also given their time and talents during the Memorial Day events in the community. They have performed in the annual parade, at the Hale Veterans Memorial site and at the formal Memorial Day Ceremony which the veterans groups conduct at Esmond Evergreen Cemetery.
Bowman adds that Billingsley does a great job of trying to time everything out, so that the students can perform at as many functions as possible on these important dates. “For as small as we are, I think they do a lot.”
Bowman also highlighted the efforts of HAS third grade teacher Julie Look, who organizes the school’s Veteran’s Day ceremony.
As reported, those from the district had mulled the possibility of cancelling this in 2020, due to the pandemic. However, they couldn’t let an opportunity to honor veterans pass them by. So, rather than host the assembly in the HAS gym, per usual, they opted for a safe, outdoor ceremony.
HAS Superintendent Robert Colby said at the time that every student in the district took part in the preparations for the program.
“Thank you, students, for your respectful show of support for our veterans,” he commented. “All Americans owe a debt of gratitude to those who served to keep our country free, as well as an obligation to support future generations that will preserve these same freedoms.”
Along with patriotic decorations, the latest Veterans Day ceremony featured participation from Cub Scouts Pack 3990 of Hale, speeches, music, handmade displays and much more, courtesy of HAS students and staff.
Bowman says the children really get into the program and want to be a part of it. “I mean, really, how many of our kids are on a military base or have been to a military base where they see a ceremony like that? They just don’t see it.”
Colby said that HAS usually hosts a reception after the program, but they couldn’t do so in 2020 because of the pandemic. Therefore, the students instead decorated and stuffed goody bags for the veterans who showed up.
“I think it’s imperative that our kids learn to do service,” Bowman remarked.
“And Julie Bernard is our fourth grade teacher, who is also our NHS sponsor, and she really does a good job with those kids and getting them out in the community and doing what they can,” he went on. “I think that’s a big deal, too – whether it’s veterans or for anybody.”
Bowman, whose father and son both served in the Marines, also has a grandfather and a number of uncles and cousins who have been in the military. And this, he says, is something to which a lot of HAS students can relate.
“We have quite a few parents that are in the armed services,” he points out, adding that it is such a difficult thing to be away from one’s family. “I just don’t know how they do it.”
He says that those from HAS don’t single out any of the children from military families, or staff who may have a spouse in the armed services. “But we wait, we watch, we listen, if there’s anything we can do.”
Bowman says the office employees are on the ball when it comes to this. “They just get after it and I really appreciate that. It has nothing to do with me; that has everything to do with them, and how much they care.”
And, whenever the teachers give lessons on veterans, “It’s just fascinating to them,” Bowman says of the students, who sit politely and patiently as they become engrossed in the lectures.
Polishak also said that when veterans have gone to HAS to speak with the students, the younger children ask cute, silly and even unusual questions. “Like, ‘What time to do you have to get up?’”
Bowman says it’s important to recognize that the students are even posing questions to begin with, because they’re showing an interest. “So they’re hearing about this stuff some way, and these folks who live it, they’re there. They want to be part of it.”
Bowman has worked in schools for 30 years, and nearly that entire time, he has tried to team up with the veterans associations wherever he was located. For the past nine years, this has included the work done through HAS.
But, taking a modest approach as always, he says it is the teaching staff and other employees – including the front desk workers who compile everything for Polishak to pick up – who truly do the heavy lifting.
“I enjoy it, I really do,” Bowman remarked. But, “Like I said, it’s really my staff and the kids that are doing a really great job.”
Polishak further pointed out that the employees are wonderful with encouraging the youngsters to salute a veteran, or thank them for their service. “They stress that with their students.”
Bowman says he thinks that many of the HAS parents also expect the same thing from their children, and for them to be courteous, which he appreciates.
“I can tell you, for as long as I’m here, this is going to go on. We will do this,” Bowman assured. “And I would imagine whoever’s next will, too, because my teaching staff will keep it going. And they don’t need me. They know what they’re doing.”
While Bowman is humble, Polishak said she thought that people should know what he and the HAS teachers do for the community. “We wouldn’t be able to do it if he didn’t have the teachers do it, because you’ve got to have everybody working together.”
“We will do it,” Bowman reiterated. “I’m very pleased to work with them.”
He recalled that he first spoke with Polishak at a HAS Veterans Day ceremony and, during the happenstance conversation, they began discussing what they can do and how to do things better.
Polishak also remembers approaching Bowman to see if he would let the students make the cards. “And that was the best thing we ever did, was get together.”
She adds that she calls Bowman an unsung hero because he doesn’t ask to be notice. “But I want him to be.”
Bowman says the involvement with veterans is a group effort at HAS, and everybody plays a role. “I don’t know what I would do without them.”