In her 33 years with Manteca Unified, Joshua Cowell Elementary School Principal Bonnie Bennett does not remember any time when a Congressman has visited a school in the district.
It was her way of highlighting Monday as a very special day for her Cougars because they were playing host to Republican Congressman Jeff Dunham of the 19th Congressional District during the morning assembly in the school’s Peace Garden.
It was fifth grader Genevieve Florez who brought the Representative to the Manteca campus from his office in Washington, D.C. With the Cowell School student body and staff watching, Denham presented the young student the proclamation that he read aloud at one of the Congressional sessions in Washington, D.C., recognizing her efforts in spearheading a project benefiting American soldiers overseas. Her brainchild resulted in having 68 care packages mailed to various soldiers all over the world including war-torn Afghanistan through the auspices of the Cpl. Charles O. Palmer II Support Troops Program set up by the fallen Marine’s parents, Charles and Teri Palmer, after he was killed in Fallujah, Iraq in 2007. Genevieve’s project resulted in the involvement of her schoolmates and their families who brought to the school their donated care-package items on Sept. 11 during the school’s observance of Patriot Day.
The principal called Congressman Denham’s visit to the school as the final chapter – Chapter 3 – of the school’s Patriot Day Story, which began with the students pledging to donate food and personal-care items for American soldiers serving in various parts of the world.
Watching the students bringing “their gifts on the stairs” of the stage in the school quadrangle “was magic,” recalled Bennett.
“The way you contributed with what you have… made your principal feel good – to give something no matter how small,” she said.
The poignancy of the students’ gifts to soldiers who are serving their country far from home was heightened by the words of two of the day’s special guests – Navy medic Christopher Braley, and Sharpe Depot Inspector-Instructor 1st Sgt. Brian Dechsler.
“There’s nothing like getting a package from back home. It’s like getting a Christmas present. It’s like going out for an ice cream after you win a game, and your father takes you out for an ice cream,” said Braley with a broad smile, his left eye twinkling behind thick-rimmed spectacles as he spoke to his young audience.
Braley, who is now “medically retired,” lost his right eye during a September 2007 explosion in Iraq where he was assigned as a Navy medic. He spent months at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where doctors performed surgeries to relieve brain swelling and to rebuild his brow area. He was 22 years old at the time. Today, he is married and the proud father of a son born just three weeks ago.
“Thank you for all the sunflower seeds, the baby wipes, beef jerky, for the deodorant….,” he said, joining in the laughter from the audience. Then, turning to Genevieve, he said, “Thank you for the idea you did.”
He was introduced during the program by Place of Refuge Pastor Mike Dillman of the annual Not Forgotten Memorial Day event in Manteca, considered the biggest on the West Coast.
Dechsler told the students, “your letters mean a lot. It’s like Christmas every day.”
Letters, like the ones written by the students which were sent along with the care packages, make soldiers serving in far-flung troubled corners of the world “forget about what makes them sad,” Dechsler said.
Excerpts from some of the thank-you letters sent by the American soldiers who received the care packages were read aloud by selected Cowell students, with the principal instructing the student body to “pretend that it’s the soldiers’ voices that you hear as you listen to the words.”
Denham served in Operation Desert Storm
Superintendent Jason Messer, who led the delegation of school district officials to the Monday event, said he was very proud of Joshua Cowell School and then told the students, “you, guys, are making a huge difference.”
He also announced that what they started at their school will be replicated at the more than two-dozen other campuses in the school district.
The Palmers, who could not make it to Monday’s ceremony, sent a plaque to Joshua Cowell School thanking them for their participation in the Support Troops project. Accepting the plaque on behalf of the school was student body president and eighth grader, Joshua Kong.
In an e-mail to the Bulletin last week, Principal Bennett noted, “The Joshua Cowell story of our 9/11 celebration with Commander Burke and with the Charles Palmer family, as well as our collection of our care packages for soldiers was read aloud in Washington, D.C., at one of the Congressional sessions. Genevieve’s efforts are now recorded as part of the permanent Congressional record, part of U.S. history forever.”
Before he went into politics, Denham served on active and reserve status for 16 years in the United States Air Force. He served during the Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia for which he received the meritorious medal. He enlisted in the service when he was 17.