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Valley students welcome home soldiers

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NORTH BEND - When the students at North Bend Montessori were told a group of soldiers they had sent care packages to in Iraq would visit their school, they were brimming with questions.

Would the soldiers be wearing their boots? Do they live in Iraq? Have they ever been to Disneyworld? Will they bring a tank?

When the six soldiers arrived at the school last week for a homecoming celebration that featured patriotic songs, flag waving and cupcakes, it was apparent the build up was worth the wait for both the students and soldiers.

The event was the culmination of a project started in December by Sally Rankin, an employee at the school.

Rankin, who's high-school-age daughter's father was deployed last year, decided to turn an annual charitable act the school performs into a gesture of support for U.S. troops.

"I just decided instead of giving gifts, let's gather stuff together for the troops," said Rankin. "I think they need the support; we need to let them know that we appreciate them."

The school's 160 families set out to gather games, stationary, personal hygiene products, food and other items to ship overseas. What the soldiers received was 16 boxes weighing in at almost 300 pounds.

"Our families were great. They bought Costco out," said a laughing Susan Weigel, who owns the school with husband Steve.

Weigel said in addition to preparing the items for shipment, teachers at the school used the project as a learning tool. Although many of the more harsh details about deployment and being a soldier were left out, students did learn what it means to be deployed and the style of life in other countries.

Not only did the lessons help many of the children understand what was happening to members of their families or people they might know, Weigel said, it also helped build an appreciation for what they have living in America.

"If you don't explain it to them early, they don't understand. They take what they have for granted," said Weigel.

According to Rankin, the lessons helped the roughly 12 students at the school who have immediate relatives overseas establish contact with others in their situation and gave them somebody to which they could relate.

Parent Gail Thompson said she had no reservations about the teachers discussing a potentially sensitive subject.

"It's what happens in our world," said Thompson.

Scott Richards, an attendant to the 101st Airborne who was stationed in Iraq, said receiving such packages from home are a big morale boost while stationed abroad. With an 8-year-old son back at his Seattle home, hearing from other children while stationed in Iraq was comforting.

"It's great to hear from kids," said Richards.

Rankin said she's not sure exactly what the next project to assist those overseas will be, but as long as there are U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq, it's a safe bet the school will be doing its part of make them feel more comfortable.

And what about the answers to all those questions?

Yes, the soldiers wore their boots. No, they don't live in Iraq. One soldier had been to Disneyland, but never Disneyworld. And there was no tank present at the event.

Travis Peterson can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at travis.peterson@valleyrecord.com.

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