BOSTON — Juan Salas, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Venezuela, was a student at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., when he was called to serve overseas. On his return from Iraq, he was determined to support his friends who were still serving there.
At first, he wanted to reach out to his platoon and to others, to let them know someone at home was thinking of them. Army Sgt. Salas says his term was long. “But the thing that kept me going,” he said, “was getting letters from kids, Boy Scouts, students. A letter was like a piece of gold, something you will keep for the rest of your life.”
To reach as many soldiers as possible, he enlisted the help of staff and students at Manhattanville College. In November 2004, he launched the “My Soldier” program. In a month, it was an instant success. It had registered not only staff and students, but from all 50 states. It continues to grow today.
My Soldier gives participants the opportunity to put politics aside and to adopt a U.S. serviceperson deployed overseas. Anyone can participate.
St. Anthony Shrine in Boston is participating. In addition to doing fun things like arts and crafts and music, and providing school supplies, Christmas gifts and meals, the Shrine educates about citizenship and personal development.
The My Soldier Program is a practical extension of this education and echoes the mission of St. Anthony Shrine: “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
“It is a simpile, honest and probably fun way for the kids to learn that everyday acts of kindness can have profound effects,” said Gary Maciag.
“Each month, the diverse group of children at the Shrine’s KIDS Program makes contact with ‘our soldier’ by writing a note or drawing a picture, some of them very touching in their gratitude and appreciation. At the moment, we are writing to Sgt. Ted.
Does this make a difference? We heard from the mother of our first soldier.” She wrote:
Dear St. Anthony Shrine,
This letter is to thank you for all the wonderful letters you sent to my son Keith while he served in Iraq. This is to let you know he made it back to the U.S. He sent me all your letters and let me know it really boosted his morale, as he has a 5-year-old son himself….
“This is a wonderful way for our children to learn the gift of giving…not only material things that might be needed, but the gift of themselves,” said John Maganzini, vicar at St. Anthony Shrine.
Information about the KIDS Program, whose participants meet on the third Sunday of each month, is available through Gary Convertino at 617-542-6440 ext. 147. According to the Shrine’s Web site, the aim of the program is to create a community and educational atmosphere. Participating children range in age from five to 14 yeas of age. They attend parochial and public schools in the greater Boston area.
— Sr. Margaret Henry, MFIC, is in the Human Services Office of St. Anthony Shrine in Boston.