BARRIE ISLAND—Last Friday afternoon one lucky boy, Jesse Burella, a student in Heather Jefkins’ Grade 4/5 class at Charles C. McLean Public School, had a very special visitor when Captain Tannis Downey, a navigator with 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Trenton Base, roared her way into Gore Bay with fellow members of her search and rescue squadron aboard a CC-130 H-Model Hercules—an impressive, hulking sight.
As the class (all donned in red for Red Friday in support of Canadian troops) waited patiently in their own cordoned off section of the Gore Bay-Manitoulin Airport, Ms. Jefkins explained her pen pal initiative and Flat Stanley project.
In September of last year, Ms. Jefkins set out to match each of her students with a pen pal in the Canadian Armed Forces. She began with one, Captain Tony Walsworth, who then reached out to his fellow service people. Within 24 hours, she had 10 more pen pals and within two weeks, 32.
“I had more than I needed, but I didn’t want to turn anyone away so I opened it up to the students to have two pen pals with the understanding that it would be twice the work,” she said. Some of the students jumped at the chance, taking more than one on their own or pairing up with another student to help carry the work of communicating with two pen pals. On top of their typical letter writing, the students also coloured and decorated their own ‘Flat Stanley,’ a character that the pals are encouraged to take with them on their adventures around the world and through daily tasks on base. Captain Wolsworth even had the base photographer follow he and his Stanley around for a day, documenting ‘a day in the life’ for his C.C. McLean pen pal, “which the kids loved,” their teacher shared.
Throughout the school year, the kids have used all the major holidays to send their pen pals new letters or care packages while learning new things all at the same time. At Christmastime, the students learned the program Microsoft Publisher, creating a newsletter, complete with photos, to send to their service people. For the winter months, the class commissioned My Ol’ Blues to create 32 pairs of red and white maple leaf mittens which were sent along with a letter to their pals.
Principal Christy Case sent Ms. Jefkins on a Rainbow District School Board training session where she learned how to create podcasts. She then booked the board’s MacBooks so the kids could create their own podcasts, effectively a spoken letter complete with photos of their choosing—some of which showcased Manitoulin, some their personal lives out of school. Each of the pals was emailed this very special ‘letter’ by Ms. Jefkins. The response was instant, the teacher said, with the service people so pleased to put a voice with the name.
The pen pals have reciprocated the giving too, with plenty of t-shirts, a ration pack, survival candy, model planes, stickers and magnets coming C.C. McLean’s way too. Ms. Jefkins has a ‘Stanley file’ with 656 images of Stanley and the pen pals from all around the world, from the Philippines and as far north as Alert. “It’s been a great motivator to learn how to use a map,” the teacher said, noting that all of the students know how to dash off a letter too.
The Friday visit was a good way to wrap up the school year. One month ago, Captain Tannis Downey contacted Ms. Jefkins about wanting to make Manitoulin the destination of her squadron’s daily training run and to officially meet her pen pal Jesse. It was then up to Ms. Jefkins to contact the municipalities of Gore Bay and Gordon/Barrie Island to seek permission as the Hercules planned to ‘buzz’ the area, which of course they readily agreed to. The hardest part for the teacher, however, was refraining from telling her class until Captain Downey got the official go ahead from her superiors.
“I was about this high off the ground and said whatever I need to do I’ll do,” Ms. Jefkins laughed, holding her hand waist high.
Last Friday, she got the news and was able to tell her class, who were ecstatic.
It’s been interesting to note the connections each of the students have with one another’s pen pals and the work they do with the Hercules aircraft, Ms. Jefkins said.
“I’m so proud of them,” she said. “They’ve all worked so very hard.”
As the Hercules approached, the aircraft could be heard before it was seen. It cruised the skies, making several passes over Gore Bay and Barrie Island before beginning its search and rescue technician training exercises which included message, bundle and parachute operations. The Hercules first dropped a bundle, via parachute, then multi-coloured streamers which help to determine wind direction and, best for last, two parachute technicians left the Hercules after its climb to 10,000 feet and soared down, landing near the children with their brightly coloured parachutes, much to the students’ delight.
Once the Hercules landed and taxied down the Gore Bay-Manitoulin Airport, Jesse and Ms. Jefkins made their way out onto the tarmac to finally meet Captain Downey. There, from this massive aircraft, emerged the petite and young captain. “Yeah,” she admitted of her looks shyly. “I’m 25. I joined right out of high school at age 17.”
“We’re so excited to have you here,” Ms. Jefkins said, shaking the captain’s hand.
Jesse also shook hands with his pen pal for the first time, smiling when she offered him his own Search and Rescue hat, which took pride of place on his head over the Toronto Maple Leafs cap he had been donning.
“Jesse’s sent me letters and I’ve sent him pics,” the captain said. “I think it’s just awesome,” she added of the pen pal program.
“It’s such a nice initiative from Heather,” Captain Downey continued. “Gore Bay is only an hour away from Trenton. I figured we were so close and go out every day for training anyway and it also gives something back to Heather, who gives so much.”
Following Jesse’s official meeting with his pen pal, the students and spectators were encouraged to come aboard the Hercules and explore while the technicians were on hand to answer any questions they had.