Students Helping Soldiers makes a difference

Students Helping Soldiers makes a difference

September 17, 2013, 9:00 am
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Mark Strotman

Stevenson physical education teacher Dino Moran was quietly readying himself for the upcoming school day around 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when he received a worrisome phone call.

“You need to get over here. Some stuff is going on,” is all the former Marine was told. So he quickly gathered his things, hustled across the Stevenson campus and walked in to the PE office moments before United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

“I’m getting chills right now,” Moran said, recounting the memory every American can: where he or she was on 9/11. “It was kind of a rough moment. Being a former Marine, obviously I was very angry and wanted to go do something about it.”

Moran had served four years as a Marine, with tours in Okinawa during Desert Storm in 1989 and 1991 after completing his training at Camp Pendleton in California. He had already given his service to the country he loved so dearly, but with a wife, kids and hundreds of high-school students to look after, he knew his commitment now was to protect those he loved back home.

As he watched a third hijacked airplane fly into the Pentagon and a fourth crash into a field in Pennsylvania, his emotions of rage and helplessness went unchanged. As he watched the twin towers collapse, and as he watched almost 3,000 innocent men, women and children lose their lives on that dark day, all he could think about was his fellow troops, who he understood would likely soon be risking their lives overseas to protect his, his family’s and his students’ freedom.

He wanted to do something. He needed to do something.

The very next day, he went into action.

The following morning one of Moran’s students, Emily McStay, asked to speak with him at school. She told Moran her brother was serving in the Navy and she wanted to know if there was anything she and Moran, the ex-Marine, could do to help. That day – Sept. 12, 2001 – McStay, three other students and Moran founded Students Helping Soldiers (SHS), a club whose sole goal was to support the troops any way possible, whenever they could.

More than a decade later, Moran’s organization is stronger than ever, now with 80 students, numerous parents and dozens of graduated Patriots who come back and lend a hand whenever they’re in town. Stephanie Bush, a fellow teacher at Stevenson, also helps run the group. Activities to raise money and awareness range anywhere from school fundraisers to concerts to the annual Paint-a-Thon –- earlier this month, through Catholic Charities, students of SHS painted the house of an 87-year-old woman whose husband, a WWII veteran, had recently passed away.

“Every year we seem to be getting stronger and stronger,” Moran, also an assistant on the varsity baseball team, said, “and we have a lot of students who have family members that have served in the military or still have family members.”

[DRIVE: Bourbon recovers, leads Stevenson to victory]

The Patriots also work closely with the school’s sports teams. Hoops for Heroes –- a project with the basketball team –- has been running strong for nearly a decade, and last year the organization paired up with the honors band to begin the Heart of a Marine Foundation, raising $2,300 in the process.

As much as the money helps –- and it does –- the most rewarding part of each event is that military personnel and veterans are almost always involved. Part of senior Katie Lillis, the group's president, sophomore Ben Pantitch and senior Alex Perrie’s role as co-student leaders is to make sure that happens.

“My role is to help organize all these events, and try and get all these troops out, trying to get the students rallied up for them,” Pantitch said, “and it just means so much to me to see the smiles on [the troops’] faces. It’s absolutely awesome, seeing the faces, seeing everybody come out and support those who save us and keep us free every day.”

Last Friday, SHS took on perhaps its biggest task yet. In honor of the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the organization hosted Military Appreciation Night, dubbing the Patriots’ football contest against Zion Benton the 9/11 Memorial Game, two days after the school held a memorial service before school for the victims of 9/11.

Dozens of troops and veterans attended, tossing out freebies to those in the stands, and they set up booths to raise awareness and money, selling T-shirts and handing out other giveaways. Nearly every Stevenson student in attendance wore a camouflage shirt or sweatshirt –- some with “Students Helping Soldiers” across the front –- and the football team came out to the field underneath a GoArmy.com inflated camouflage tunnel.

One of the biggest highlights from the event was Ray Emenson, a WWII paratrooper who was taken hostage by the Germans, who came out to midfield before the game for the coin toss and sat in a VIP section in the back of the north end zone with his family. Five veterans also presented arms during the National Anthem, played by the Stevenson marching band.

“It’s incredible. You see people going up and thanking them, which I always do, and to see my other peers to take the time to appreciate all that these people do for our country, it’s really rewarding,” senior Katie Lillis, the group’s president, said. “And knowing that I’m taking part in that, to spread awareness and to show how support, is amazing.”

[DRIVE: Patriots look to themselves for improvement]

Two of those troops, staff sergeant Chauncey Halsey and staff sergeant Angela Mitchell, said Friday night’s event was a special one to be a part of and that as much as they were thanked, they can’t thank the Lincolnshire community enough. It’s something that helps them realize that what they are doing it making a huge difference.

“It’s a very rewarding feeling that you get. I don’t think you can get it anywhere else,” Mitchell said. “You know, seeing people be able to live day-to-day because of what you do, it’s very, very rewarding, and I don’t think you can get that anywhere else."

Added Halsey: “Every morning when I wake up and put my uniform on, I feel good. And pretty much every day somebody tells me thank you, it makes it even better. We can work other jobs and do other things and have other careers, but this has got to be one of the most rewarding. It’s got to be at the top.”

In addition to the money and awareness raised by the event, SHS also undertook the lofty task of taking in donated shoes to present to AmVets. The group’s goal was to stretch out the shoes along the sidelines of the Stevenson football field –- all 100 yards –- at halftime, something they weren't sure they could accomplish in just two short weeks.

“When it started out we weren't too sure,” Moran said of reaching their goal. “But we had well over 100 yards of shoes. That’s the support that we get from the parents and the community and our staff, and it’s just phenomenal the way everybody supports what we do. And that just shows the support that they have for the troops, is really what it is.”

[FACEBOOK: Students Helping Soldiers' official page]

For all the championships and individual accolades the school’s sports teams have won -– the varsity team beat the Zee-Bees 48-13 in the memorial game –- the Patriots’ most important group may be Students Helping Soldiers. The passion exuded by each and every one of the members, and Moran’s guidance –- “he’s the heart and soul of it,” Lillis said –- has made the difference in plenty of veterans’ lives.

Twelve years ago Moran, watching terror take over New York City, vowed to do something. He and a number of dedicated kids have done just that with Students Helping Soldiers.

“We’re the Stevenson Patriots,” he said, “but we’re also pretty patriotic, too.”