The eighth-graders from Grizzell Middle School were likely to see World War II veterans on their trip to Washington, D.C., their teachers told them.
This was in October, during the government shutdown. The veterans had been in the news because they were having difficulty getting into the memorial to WWII. History teacher Shawn Kaeser and some of the other adults took the opportunity to make a proposal.
"You're only going to have the chance to talk to them for a few more years," he remembers telling the students. "You might want to go up and introduce yourselves and ask them questions."
The suggestion, and everything that followed, has come in some ways to define the school year for those 13- and 14- year -olds. It also has led to a grade-wide project to help the old troops see the National World War II Memorial.
Grizzell eighth-graders have raised more than $13,500 to help sponsor a trip for about 30 World War II veterans to Washington. The money will go to Honor Flight Columbus, the local branch of the national organization that takes veterans and their caregivers to the memorial at no charge to them.
"I'd like to get $15,000," Kaeser said in a meeting with some of his students last week.
"I want to get more than $15,000!" replied Jackson Khandelwal, 13, one of the project's student leaders.
That kind of enthusiasm has made the fundraising project possible, Kaeser said. It goes back to the October trip, when the kids did what the teachers had suggested.
Savannah "Savvyâ" Heinlin, 13, said she and some friends knew to go up to older guys wearing World War II hats. "We went over and shook their hands and thanked them for their service," she said.
The son of one WWII veteran — himself an Iraq veteran from Kansas — was so moved that he wrote a letter to the Dublin school district.
"I'm not sure if every student from Grizzell shook our hands, but it sure seemed like it," the son wrote, after recounting a similar experience with Sells Middle School students who also were on the trip.
"Dublin, Ohio, is doing something right," he wrote, "and we all came away with the impression that this country might just have a future after all."
The experience also was important for the students.
"You read about World War II in class all the time," said Adam McCarty, 14. "But to actually see that person who gave you your freedom ..."
Grizzell Principal Dustin Miller had earlier asked each grade to complete a service project. Some of the veterans the students on the Washington trip had met were there because of Honor Flight. So raising money to sponsor a flight became obvious to Kaeser and his fellow teachers.
More than 30 students submitted essay applications to be the leaders of the project; Jackson, Savvy, Adam and about 10 others were chosen.
Every eighth-grade student wrote to an area business to explain the fundraising and to ask for donations. They received $1,000 checks from Wendy's, Elmer's Products and Greif, an industrial-packaging manufacturer. Plenty of other businesses wrote checks, too.
The students sold Chipotle burritos at school to raise money. When Chipotle found out what was going on, it donated half the burritos. A fundraiser, which lets students wear pajamas to class and eat a couple of doughnuts for a $5 donation, could bring in $1,000.
Other schools also have raised money for Honor Flight, said Jim Downing, the president of Honor Flight Columbus. Westerville schools and Olentangy Liberty High School have been big supporters.
The students in all those places have something in common, Downing said. "I think they really appreciate the sacrifices that these men and women veterans have made."
Grizzell plans to hold an assembly on May 2 to present the money for use on a May 17 trip, Kaeser said. The school hopes that any veterans who can make it to the assembly will attend.
The assembly, like the project itself, is meant to be a celebration of military service.