By Megen O’Keefe, Division Two Humanities Teacher
“There are so many stories,” says 8th Grader Vivian O., perfectly capturing the essence of the day. The connection between Wildwood’s Division Two students and New Directions for Veterans during the day of service was undeniable.
On Friday, April 28, 130 middle school students boarded buses for a quick ten-minute ride to the New Directions headquarters on the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration campus.
Although only a ten-minute drive apart, the differences in space, age, and life experiences were felt by both the veterans and the students. Once the games and the gardening began, the interactions and collaborations occurred naturally. Students and the veterans faced off on opposite sides of the chess boards, played lively games of knock-out basketball and volleyball, strummed ukuleles and sang together, enjoyed horseshoes and ladder golf, created vibrant chalk drawings, and planted several gardens around the VA campus.
Many 8th graders volunteered to assume leadership of each of these stations to ensure that the day ran smoothly, while their classmates seemed to love spending time outside enjoying the sunshine and open space. While playing and working alongside the veterans, students like Vivian began to hear stories of so many who, after serving this country, came home feeling disconnected, struggling emotionally and financially, causing them to lose their support system and homes.
Wildwood’s middle and upper school hosted a panel of veterans from New Directions in October of this year to kick off a toiletry and gift card drive, so students heard some of these stories already, but it was Friday’s “Picnic Day” where they were able to forge more personal and deep interactions. Seventh grader, Yuji W.’s highlight of the day was when he taught a veteran to play chess. Eric N., an 8th grader, and Eddie, a veteran, went head-to-head on the volleyball court.
New Directions for Veterans works with and for homeless veterans to help them rebuild their lives. It was created in 1992 after two homeless Vietnam veterans who credit the VA for saving their lives saw the VA’s funding cut. New Directions has been successful in helping 3,000 veterans get off the street and start rebuilding their lives in Los Angeles. The West Los Angeles headquarters provides temporary housing to 150 veterans. After attending classes and therapy sessions, these veterans will get all the support they need to find jobs and permanent housing.
The day ended with an outdoor BBQ, volleyball game and last minute touches to the garden projects happening around the campus. As we boarded the buses a bit more sunburnt than when we arrived, we also left with shared experiences that a day like this generates.