By Tina Jenkins Bell
BAPA School Liaison
Last month, an intergenerational crew comprised of St. Cajetan School 7th and 8th graders, Smith Village residents, and 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea joined ranks to create Valentine keepsakes to brighten the lives of 45 veteran participants in Rush University Medical Center’s Road Home program.
“We look at this as amazing opportunities for our children,” said Michelle Nitsche, St. Cajetan principal of the chance to partner with Smith Village residents. “It’s valid for our kids because they learn to give back and serve others. That is first and foremost for our students.”
Giving back to others was a priority for former Army reservist Kevin Butler whose son Owen Butler, a 7th grade student at St. Cajetan and secretary of the school’s Student Council, was present. Being present for his son was an equal consideration.
“I’m here to make sure veterans know they are appreciated, even years down the line,” Butler said. “It’s also a way to show my son that I appreciate what he is doing here. It’s an added experience that I get to help veterans.”
Owen added that he wanted “to help veterans and make sure they were safe.”
Eighth grader Evan Shirrer said, “I like helping the community and making people laugh.”
The Road Home program offers mental health treatment and support services to veterans and their family members who suffer from various mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, military sexual trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These veterans don’t just reside in the Greater Chicago area, they come from all over the United States and other countries, according to Army Veteran and Road Home Outreach Coordinator Eric Chessier.
“Many veterans suffer from the hidden wounds of war and service,” Chessier said. “Our program offers free mental health services. We house them. We feed them. We pay for all expenses, including the care they receive.”
Chessier added that the Valentines for Vets event was a way to give veterans “a token of our appreciation. We take these keepsakes back to the veterans, and it makes them feel good.”
About 12 St. Cajetan 7th and 8th graders worked with Smith Village residents to decorate glass ornaments and create origami decorations. The ornaments, which opened at the top, were filled with additional gifts.
Ald. O’Shea said the 19th Ward has participated in this event for several years. “During COVID, we hit a little bump in the road where we couldn’t gather, but coming back to Smith Village is always a fun time,” O’Shea said. “We partner with them on so many important programs, but I love the seniors and children component. It is so important when you think of what separation and isolation we’ve seen in the last few years. This event is good for everyone — the kids, the seniors, and the veterans.”
“It’s important for us to do these intergenerational programs,” said Marti Jatis, Smith Village Executive Director. “First of all, it brings the community in and that breaks down the walls between our [Smith Village] community and the rest of the community. The residents enjoy it. Like today, they are really enjoying learning origami from the kids. They came so well-versed, and they love to do things to give back for charity. It’s a win-win.”
Principal Nitsche agreed. “We try to provide as many opportunities as we can to put our students in those situations where they firsthand get to serve others in real life. We do that with our young ones, too. We used to have a program called Grand Friends. Our little preschoolers would come over to Smith Village to make cards and sing songs for the residents. We have various opportunities for our kids to learn about and participate in outreach,” she said.