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East County Wednesday, May 26, 2021 3 months ago

A project with honor in Lakewood Ranch

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McNeal Elementary fifth graders raise more than $3,000 to donate to Honor Flight.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Allee Lowry, a fifth grader at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School, sold more than 100 paintings she created to raise money for her class’ leadership project.

She painted canvases, rocks, picture frames, shells and more in red, white and blue in honor of veterans.

“I feel good about [raising money] because I know there’s a lot of people out there that lost some family when they were serving, and people liked the artwork and told me they’re going to keep it forever,” Lowry said. 

On May 20, Lowry, along with her 21 classmates, presented the $3,468 they raised and 130 cards they made for veterans to April Currie, the president of Honor Flight of West Central Florida, and O’Neil Ducharme, a Marine Corps veteran who served from 1942 to 1981 and now serves as an Honor Flight ambassador.

Honor Flight is a nonprofit that brings veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials dedicated to veterans.

Fifth grader Colt Smith gives Gary Gilchrist, a director of Honor Flight of West Central Florida, a bouquet of flowers.

Each fifth grade class at McNeal Elementary was tasked with coming up with a leadership project that would exhibit seven habits: Be proactive; begin with the end in mind; put first things first; think win-win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize; and sharpen the saw.

Olivia Swartling, Lowry’s teacher, said her class of 22 students brainstormed 35 ideas before focusing on mental health and veterans for their leadership project. At least 15 students in the class have family members that have served or are currently serving in the military.

After the class decided to raise money for Honor Flight of West Central Florida in St. Petersburg, the students came up with ways they could raise money, including having lemonade stands and snow cone stands, doing chores around the house, making and selling dog treats and donating money students personally saved.

O'Neil Ducharme, a Marine Corps veteran and Honor Flight ambassador, talks to Olivia Swartling, a fifth grade teacher at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School.

“One of my first rules was that this is not, go ask your mom and dad for money; this is you’re going to work for it, you’re going to see what $1 is worth because I want you to earn this feeling,” Swartling said. “It was incredible to watch them all come together.”

The class’ goal was to raise $500, but the students went above and beyond their goal. 

Besides spending more than 100 hours inside and outside the classroom raising $3,468 for Honor Flight, the class made 130 cards for veterans.

“This project made my heart swell up with joy,” Swartling said. “They were able to find little wins, so if they weren’t able to donate money, they realized they could donate time. They were able to understand that raising awareness is just as big of a thing as raising money.”

O'Neil Ducharme, a Marine Corps veteran, and April Currie, the president of Honor Flight of West Central Florida, are blown away by the $3,468 donation Olivia Swartling's fifth grade class at McNeal Elementary gave to Honor Flight

Currie was blown away by the class’s donation, which is enough money to send almost seven veterans to Washington, D.C. through Honor Flight.

Abigail Cobb, a fifth grader and project manager for the class, said what she enjoyed most was making dozens of cards for veterans.

“The cards are definitely my favorite just knowing they would fill a veteran’s heart,” Cobb said.

Currie said veterans who receive cards like the ones the students made will keep them for years. She said veterans have shown her scrapbooks filled with cards and mail from people like the McNeal Elementary students and are able to say from whom they received each card.

Olivia Swartling, a fifth grade teacher, and her students, Morgan Elliott and Sophia Jensen, look at a book showcasing the mission of Honor Flight of West Central Florida.

“I never expected that,” Currie said. “To me, the grassroots part of the mission is so impactful. It makes a difference. It gets the community involved.”

Ducharme, who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, shared how he entered the military and what his experience was like in his 39 years in the Marine Corps.

“[Listening to Ducharme] was definitely life changing to know he put in so many years to give my generation freedom,” Cobb said.

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