by Neal Rentz
For students in grades five through eight at the Transfiguration School in Tarrytown, World War II is something more than what they have read about in textbooks. Pupils in social studies classes taught by Rosemary Holodak have formed a bond with those who fought in the conflict.
The students wrote letters to veterans from the Hudson Valley who participated in an Honor Flight on November 7. Through the national Honor Flight program those who fought in WWII are taken by plane to Washington D.C. to visit the World War II Memorial.
“It’s a charity,” Holodak noted. “None of the veterans have to pay for it. And it’s just a way to honor the veterans because they’re so elderly now and dying at a very rapid rate, and most of them have never seen this memorial built to honor their sacrifice. I’ve always thought it was a really worthy cause.”
The letter writing campaign originated with Tarrytown resident Audrey Savage, the grandmother of one of Holodak’s sixth grade students, Mackenzi Robinson. Savage sent a note to the school asking if the students would be interested in joining her in working with the Honor Flight program.“I thought that was just a wonderful way to get the students interested in the sacrifices our veterans have made, as well as learn more about our history,” Holodak recalled. “It just was a really good teaching opportunity.”
Holodak said she showed YouTube videos about the Honor Flight program to her students “to make them connect with these veterans. And my students were very moved by the images of these veterans. With tears in their eyes, they felt so good that people cared and people respected what they had done.”
Students in Holodak’s social studies classes wrote individual letters to one or two veterans who were taking part in the Honor Flight program to thank them for their service. “I was really proud of them,” Holodak said. “This fits very nicely with our Catholic values of service to others.”
The letters were distributed to the veterans on their flight from Westchester County Airport in White Plains to resemble a mail call they would have experienced during the war.
The letter writing program helped history come alive for her students, Holodak said. “It makes the kids connect much more emotionally with what happened,” she added. “I had students ask things like, ‘Were you scared?’ Things children would naturally wonder about.”
Holodak said she has told her students to look up to the World War II generation who also had to deal with the Great Depression. “They had a hard life and so I really want my students to respect what these people have been through,” she explained. “I think it’s a really nice way to let our veterans know we do care.”
Holodak said she would like to have her students write to more veterans for the Honor Flight scheduled in May and possibly have her students help send them off at the Westchester County Airport.
Several students who took part in the letter writing program said it was a valuable experience.
Robinson, a sixth grader, said her grandmother’s efforts generated over 400 letters to veterans from several schools. “It actually really was fun to separate them and just to see all the letters that individual veterans had received,” Robinson said.
Alexa Smith, a sixth grader from Greenburgh, said her grandmother, Rosemarie Mendoza, has told her that her father, Dominic DiCenzo, had fought in the war. “He would always tell her it was very hard for him,” she said.
Nick Scadafave, an eighth grader from Tarrytown, said, “I have a lot of respect for the military and just to write the letter of appreciation, I mean that was the least that I could do for the amount of sacrifice that each man and woman put towards our country.”
Eighth grader Charles Doyle of Irvington said he wrote in his letter, “how much I appreciated what they did for this country and how they sacrificed so much for our current day population in the United States.” Doyle said he learned through the program, “how much Americans are willing to give to their country.”
“I actually felt that this was a very enlightening experience. I can say that for my entire class,” eighth grader Gabriela Seguinot of Yonkers said. “It’s great for us to learn and see how real these people are. And it’s also great for the veterans to experience.”
Nick Soddano, an eighth grader from Greenburgh, was the first of Holodak’s students to hear back from a veteran after he wrote to John Rubino, 90, of Long Island. “At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Navy and he had just graduated from high school. So it takes a lot of courage,” Soddano said. “It was just amazing to me.”