Feature stories

Meeting heroes

Memorial Day tribute at Brooklyn school

Veterans from various branches of the military attended the event. Miller Photography

Veterans from various branches of the military attended the event.

Firefighter Julius Pontecorvo plays “Taps” on the trumpet. Miller Photography

Firefighter Julius Pontecorvo plays “Taps” on the trumpet.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house” by the end of PS 204’s 14th annual Memorial Day salute to all the people who protect us, said Trisha Arnold, the Brooklyn school’s chapter leader.

“Everybody says, ‘Kids these days, they don’t know,’” said prekindergarten teacher Kathleen Conlon, the driving force behind the celebration. “Well, how will they know if we don’t teach them?”

So Conlon invites local veterans, service men and women, and police and firefighters to be part of the Veterans Appreciation Day tradition, and many return year after year. “It means so much to them,” said Arnold.

Dyker Heights, she added, has “become quite a multicultural community, so you have children of different nationalities singing about how they’re proud to be American, and everyone gets very emotional.”

Army veterans stand during the ceremony.Miller PhotographyArmy veterans stand during the ceremony. Teacher Trisha Arnold and two students view the photo and story of a military veMiller PhotographyTeacher Trisha Arnold and two students view the photo and story of a military veteran in the Hallway of Heroes.

Students from pre-K to 5th grade sing songs such as “This Land is Your Land,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and a medley of service songs from each U.S. Armed Forces branch. As each is sung, said retired teacher and substitute Maria Shelse, “the members of that branch stand up and salute, and the kids just look at them in awe.”

Retired teacher Maria Shelse and members of the 5th-grade Veterans Chorus stand Miller PhotographyRetired teacher Maria Shelse and members of the 5th-grade Veterans Chorus stand after their performance.

Shelse, who helped Conlon start the program in 2004, retired six years ago but returns every year to train the 5th-grade Veterans Chorus. “This is my baby; I really love doing it,” she said. “We have a lot of heroes in our lives to thank.”

This year’s special guest was Patti Ann McDonald, the widow of NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, who was also in the U.S. Navy. She spoke about forgiveness — her husband publicly forgave the 15-year-old boy who shot him in 1986 and left him paralyzed from the neck down — and was presented with a framed letter about forgiveness written by a 5th-grader. McDonald died in January 2017 at age 59.

Special guest Patti Ann McDonald (left), the widow of NYPD Detective Steven McDoMiller PhotographySpecial guest Patti Ann McDonald (left), the widow of NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, addresses those in attendance while prekindergarten teacher Kathleen Conlon and some students look on.

There was a slide presentation and a Hallway of Heroes, with photos and stories about family and community members who served in the military or were heroic first responders. The program “is equally about saying thank you and teaching respect, teaching our history,” said Conlon. The children “grow up through our school and they strive to be in the Veterans Chorus when they get to 5th grade,” she said, and the celebration “kind of bookends their career here.”

Conlon said “adults come back and tell us it changed their lives.” Now, when they see veterans, they will offer assistance or thank them for their service. Graduates tell her, “I don’t know if I would have done that if I didn’t sing in the show and meet the heroes we met.”

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