The American military has many symbols that designate rank, years of service and awards received by the men and women who bravely serve this country.
Blue Star Families is a non-profit organization that provides assistance to families of military members – illustrated with a blue star flag.
Gold Star Families display a gold star that recognizes a family member who died during his or her military service.
The Purple Star Award is for schools. It symbolizes that a school or school district is dedicated to supporting its military families and the students of those families.
The five schools in Pocahontas County recently join-ed the Purple Star Award family. Hillsboro Elementary School principal Becky Spencer – who is a military mom – helped spearhead the school system’s participation in the organization.
Spencer explained that the purple designation is for all service branches and provides a platform for military families who often move several times during their service, which means children move from school to school.
“The Purple Star program helps schools identify ways that they can support military families – whether it’s emotional support, helping them find the resources in the community or making connections with other military families,” Spencer said.
At last count, Spencer said the county has 42 military families with active and currently deployed family members.
As part of the Purple Star Award, there are several things the schools must do to show their support of the families and to provide information to current students who may want to join the military in the future.
“They want you to put military links on your websites, to do at least two activities that support military families in some way in your school and at the high school level,” Spencer said. “It’s getting recruiters and links and talking and contact points. So, the high school is beefing up their platform. They usually waited for the recruiters to come to them, but they’re being a little more proactive and making sure all branches are represented.”
Pocahontas County Schools are already ahead of the curve when it comes to providing military-based programs. For several years, the Pocahontas County Veterans Honor Corps has worked with the schools and made presentations at the five schools during the week of Veterans Day.
“The Honor Corps always chooses something to highlight, so usually it’s a teachable moment,” Spencer explained. “I think last year was the setting of the table for the POW/MIA, explaining why you set a place at the table for them. One year it was how to fold the flag and what the flag represents – and to always stand as the flag passes in a parade.”
This year, the Honor Corps wants to focus on Pocahontas County High School alumni who are active military members or are going through basic training at this time.
“Once we dug through this, we found forty currently serving high school graduates that we have been tracing and finding,” Spencer said. “It’s really cool to see all of those kids. We are putting together a PowerPoint slide show of pictures of them in uniform, descriptions of their job and location, so that our kids can see where these students have gone in life.
“It was really cool to see you can have a career in the military, and we have a lot who are in the National Guard, which can help young people get through college,” she added.
With the financial assistance of the Honor Corps and American Legion, the schools are putting together special Christmas Care Packages for the county’s service men and women who are currently serving. As the schools gather supplies for this project, Spencer said she welcomes donations from community members, as well.
“Some things that they’ve requested are personal items like lotion, chap stick, band- aids, energy bars,” she said. “Those who are in basic or AIT – they’re not allowed to go to the store or they’re not allowed off base because of COVID. There’s a lot more lockdown because of COVID on the bases, so they don’t get to just run to the local Walmart.
“If it’s not in the PX and you’re not getting it through Amazon, you’re not getting it,” she added.
Spencer, whose son, Conner, recently graduated from basic training with the National Guard, said she got requests for lots of household items during Conner’s time in basic.
“Any personal care items, as well as cards, books, games,” she said. “The Buckeye Winners 4-H Club donated $400 and said, ‘Just buy them Visa cards so they can go eat.’ We’re going to wait until the end and buy them gift cards to the restaurants on base so they can have a meal on us. It’s a pretty wide range of things.”
As Spencer was collecting information for the list of active members who graduated from PCHS, she was amazed to see just how many students chose to join the military.
At Conner’s basic training graduation, Spencer said one speaker explained that the class represented the one percent of people from their communities who would serve.
In looking at the list, Spencer said Pocahontas County surpasses that, especially the Class of 2020.
“Last year’s graduating class – ten percent of them signed up and I was like, ‘why?’” she said. “It was amazing how many signed up. It’s usually two or three kids every year that go into the military, but for some reason, that group had an enormous number that went.”
Some would say it was the recruiters, but with COVID-19, the recruiters didn’t come to the school as they had in the past.
“Conner searched for his recruiter,” Spencer said.
“When I went back and saw the list, I realized we need the Purple Star. We need the support because that’s a large percentage. There are still siblings of those kids in our schools. Those families are in our community and as a community, we need to support the kids who are choosing to serve.”
Spencer said she has learned just how much being a military family can change the way you approach life every day.
“As a parent of a military kid, everything changes,” she said. “You watch the news differently. Your politics are different. How you vote is different because everything has a direct consequence on your kid. So, it’s a little bit of a different world. It has changed our view of everything.”
Along with supporting the students who go on to join the military, Spencer said the Purple Star Award really helps schools remember they have students with military family members – especially parents – who also need special attention.
“We have kids here who have parents who were deployed,” she said. “Thankfully, they’re back home now, but hearing things on the news and even in conversations – you’re teaching social studies and you’re trying to teach what’s happening – as a teacher, you have to be extremely cognizant of the children in your classroom and how that relates to them personally.
“What you might be thinking of teaching what’s happening in the world around you as current events, it’s much more than just a current event to them,” she continued. “We’re making sure that our teachers are aware of these kids. We all strive to know our families, but this is just an extra way of saying, make sure you know these guys; make sure you know the burdens they carry because it’s a bigger scenario in some ways.’”
Those interested in making donations for the Christmas Care Packages may drop items off to the school in their community. The boxes will be compiled at Hillsboro Elementary School by Spencer and Susan Arbogast and the packages will be shipped out before Christmas.