FLEMINGTON, NJ – Students at Reading-Fleming Intermediate School celebrated Unity Day today.
Vice principal Katie Lemerich called the day a chance for students to practice “respect and appreciation, especially for those who help keep our community safe.” Students were preparing for the day before it arrived, collecting donations to benefit Operation Shoebox NJ, a group that ships “care packages” to overseas troops.
It was also a celebration of service, sacrifice and volunteerism. And it was a chance for students to meet some of those who’ve already contributed, and to hear their stories.
Flemington Police Patrolman Flemington Corey Garrabrant was one of the faces familiar to students. He reminded them that the job of police is to help and, "If you see something, say something."
Chief Robert Motzel and firefighter Alan Umgelter of the Flemington Fire Department shared fire safety tips, with Motzel noting his department was founded in 1842, the same year that Abraham Lincoln was married.
Flemington-Raritan First Aid & Rescue Squad Chief David Giuliani talked about his group, and encouraged students to learn CPR and how to help a choking victim.
Sgts. Brian Willis and Jason Cho of the New Jersey National Guard Third Battalion 112th Field Artillery spoke about the role of the Guard in times of an emergency, such as Hurricane Sandy. Willis noted that the National Guard was the nation’s first military unit, pre-dating the U.S. Army.
Stacey Cagenello also spoke, but she was no stranger to students – she’s a teacher at RFIS. She has also served as an Army captain and participated in Operation Desert Storm. Cagenello told students that letters sent by the community to active duty soldiers were treasured by the recipients, even when the letters were addressed to any soldier. She received some of those letters when she was stationed in Saudi Arabia, with some senders becoming her ongoing “pen pals.”
Misti Meyer is another RFIS teacher who spoke, but she spoke as a Marine. She called the three random letters she received while stationed in Okinawa, “The best Christmas present I’ve ever gotten,” and recalled how she went to bed happy that night after reading them, despite the duties she’d had that day that weren’t especially rewarding by themselves.
Although he doesn’t teach at the school, Archie Fagan was also familiar to most students – so much so that his introduction prompted the loudest applause of today’s program held in the school’s gym. Fagan – who’s most known locally for his presence as the “ambassador” in the Flemington ShopRite and where he waits on everyone – is a World War II veteran who served in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I’m a survivor, not a hero,” Fagan told the students. He encouraged them to love their “teachers, family and the USA, the greatest country in the world.” He also advised them that “life is not easy” and that “War is hell. Pray for peace.”
Fagan also received a treat today – it was his first chance to actually see the new Hallmark greeting card commercial in which he appears.
Upon receiving a compliment about the commercial after the program and a suggestion that he could go into commercials rather than working in a supermarket, Fagan said, “I love Flemington. If anyone from Hollywood comes asking for me, tell them I’m staying here.”
Military vet Sterling Schwab couldn’t attend today’s festivities, but he appeared on a video. He called the Oreo cookies he received in Operation Shoebox NJ packages “the international language” and said they were familiar even to servicemen of other nations who didn’t speak much English. He thanked Operation Shoebox for the packages and said, “Because of a cookie, I got to meet a lot of these guys.”
Schwab also noted that NATO servicemen from other nations often remarked about the Operation Shoebox NJ packages, because their home countries didn’t have such a program. “It showed them how giving Americans are,” Schwab said.
His wife Kathy Schwab was in attendance and also spoke, holding some of the Operation Shoebox NJ cards her husband had shipped back home for safekeeping, and reminding students of the cards’ value to those serving so far from home.
Rod Hirsch is the founder and executive director of Operation Shoebox NJ. He thanked students for participating, and told them his group has sent 120,000 care packages to troops over the last 11 years. “We’re sending them a piece of home,” Hirsch said.
Hirsch acknowledged the military, which serves in about 150 of the world’s approximately 190 countries. And while Hirsch gave a nod to the power of Oreos, he also credited Girl Scout cookies as being a big hit with soldiers. With the help of the scouts, he’s shipped 3,600 boxes of the iconic cookies overseas.
Hirsch told students he feels some responsibility regarding the cookies and candy, however, so Operation Shoebox New Jersey also sends toothbrushes and toothpaste in the packages. “We don’t want our troops getting cavities overseas,” he said.
Flemington Mayor Phil Greiner was the last to speak. He noted that shoppers in ShopRite were probably disoriented this morning, wondering, “Where’s Archie?” and not knowing he was at RFIS.
Greiner told students that volunteers help in every aspect of their neighborhood, serving on boards and committees that support everything from shade trees to recreation. In honor of everyone’s service and today’s Unity Day, he used the power of his office to designate today, “Local Community Helper Day.”
Greiner’s proclamation drew enthusiastic applause from students, but it was not the equal to the thunderous applause and raucous foot stomping that followed Fagan’s introduction.
Activities will continue beyond today, with students competing in a writing contest about how members of the community help others, writing letters of appreciation to troops stationed overseas, signing a banner that will accompany an Operation Shoebox package that will be sent to a service member, and donating Halloween candy that will also be sent to overseas troops through Operation Shoebox New Jersey.
Editor's note: Hirsch is also the editor of TAPinto Somerville and TAPinto Hillsborough.