Sandy Bukowski had been a public school teacher for 30 years before she was asked to be on board for Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was only then when she created the Memorial Day Awareness Program for students in schools in the River Wards area, as well as in the Northeast.
“I actually began this program when I was still teaching,” she said.
The program is aimed at teaching students about the city’s rich history of Vietnam veterans who sacrificed their lives for their country.
The way it works is that Bukowski, of Fishtown, will first head to each school and teach students a little history about the war, including how many Philadelphians were served and were lost. Then she’ll assign them each three names of Philadelphia-based veterans who served in the Vietnam War. She tries to assign them veterans who grew up in the community around whichever school the students are from. Students are then instructed to do research on these individuals; they have to find out their ages, military branch, where they live and what high school they went to.
“Students are always surprised that so many schools have closed,” Bukowski said. “There’s a lot of them that they don’t recognize.”
On a later date, Bukowski will arrange for the PVVM to pay for busing from their school down to the memorial in Society Hill along Christopher Columbus Boulevard. She tries to make arrangements for veterans to come to speak to the kids, and usually she can find one or two to talk to the kids.
On a recent Tuesday, children from St. Katherine of Siena did just that.
“My favorite part was seeing all the names on the stones and where they came from and all the information about it,” said well-spoken fifth-grader Peyton Dailey. “They define our history.”
Colleen Sharp, director of parish services for St. Katherine, also tagged along for the trip.
“Peyton got very involved and wanted to learn more about it,” Sharp said. Sharp said the students made tracings of the veterans’ names that they studied earlier in school off the memorial wall, which will be used to decorate a bulletin board in the school.
“The kids said, ‘Thank you for your service,’ to the two veterans who showed up to the event, and it was really touching,” Sharp said. “I think they got a sense for what service to your country means.”
Most recently, there are six schools that participate in the program from around the city: Kensington High, School of the Future, Mother of Divine Grace, St. Laurentius, St. Katherine of Siena and St. Francis Xavier.
“I think it’s important for kids to learn anything about history,” Sharp added. “It’s where we came from and hopefully we learn from our mistakes, so I think it’s really important any time that the kids have the chance to go see something that was a big part of our American history. It’s something they may not know much about. It’s an important piece of who we are today. It was a good experience for them.”
Bukowski said many schools don’t know that the memorial exists, so she does her best to try to raise awareness.
“People sacrificed a lot for us all to be here,” Bukowski said. “It’s very gratifying that it means something to the students.” ••