COVID-19 canceled or disrupted a lot of things last year, but it wasn't going to interrupt a Christmas project that Red Top Middle School had done for 12 years.
RTMS students had been participating in the Bert Show’s Big Thank You — a 13-year letter-writing campaign, sponsored by the Bert Show on Q100, for American military troops overseas — since 2008, but the radio station couldn't carry out the project this past Christmas because their large groups of volunteers couldn't assemble to sort and pack the letters due to the virus.
"Our school has participated in The Big Thank You since 2008, and the coronavirus of 2020 is not going to stop us from doing our part to thank our men and women of the U.S. military," organizer Julie Hill said. "The radio station did not do the letter-writing campaign this [past] year so we’re doing it on our own."
"It’s become a tradition at Red Top Middle," Principal Dr. Wes Dickey said. "Staff and students were asking if we were going to send letters."
Between Nov. 11 and Dec. 7, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the Emerson school wrote "heartfelt and original" letters, cards and notes as part of the Miners Sending Holiday Cheer project, and the school mailed them Dec. 8 to U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Devin Baum, a 2015 graduate of Woodland High, and his friends stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Kaiserslautern, Germany, to thank them for serving their country and to wish them a merry Christmas.
"We are thanking the members of the Air Force for their service and sending them holiday greetings," an email to the RTMS Miner family said. "These are men and women that will not be with their families for the Christmas holidays; our job is to cheer them up."
Dickey said Baum, who has been in the Air Force for three years, was selected as the recipient because of his connection to the school.
"Both he and his wife [Sara Beth Wade] are former employees of Gondolier’s [Italian Restaurant and Pizza]," he said. "Sandy Couey, our technology support specialist here at Red Top, was their supervisor. They are also graduates of Woodland High School, one of our feeder high schools."
Students were allowed to write their cards and letters, preferably handwritten, at school during their Focus block and were encouraged to decorate them and include drawings and the school's mailing address if they would like to get a reply from one of the service members.
"They were very heartfelt and sincere," Dickey said. "Many included drawings, and even more included questions asking for a response."
Baum, 23, a munitions inspector, said it was a "surprise to us all" when he and his buddies received a package with more than 200 letters, cards and notes on Dec. 19.
"My wife, Sara Beth, tried to coordinate things through our friend, Sandy, who works at the school, and I didn’t know until I received the letters a couple of days before Christmas," he said. "I loved it. This has been the first time I’ve received appreciation letters since I joined and have lived in Germany for three years."
The Kingston native said he and his friends "took the time to read them all one by one."
"All of them were very cute and innocent," he said, noting his buddies "talked about what it was like when they did the same thing in school." "Most of them wished us a happy Thanksgiving or merry Christmas. Most others also thanked us for our service and wished us well while serving our country. Some also asked what our job was, do we like what we do or what our favorite hobbies were."
But his favorite letters were "the ones with jokes," Baum said.
"I appreciate the thought that kids put into their letters, and making us smile made our days that much better," he said.
Seventh-grader McKayla Elizabeth Gentry was one of those students who wanted to give the airmen a chuckle.
"I wanted to write a letter because the letter that I sent could have went to someone who was struggling with not being able to go and see their family for Christmas," she said. "I could have helped someone smile. I wrote a couple of jokes and hopefully made them smile because they could have been having a bad day, and then my jokes could have made their day."
The 12-year-old said she "wrote about different things, like that I'm sorry that they can't come home for Christmas, and I'm super-thankful for their service."
"I couldn't be more happy for what they have done," she said. "I asked for nothing but peace and comfort for them and that I hoped that they have an awesome Christmas and to stay happy even in the tough times and that I'm praying for them."
She also said "I pray that all the soldiers have an awesome time while they're gone and pray that they come home soon."
McKayla hasn't received a response from any of the airmen yet, but she said she "never give[s] anything to people expecting things in return."
Baum said he and his co-workers do plan to write back to as many students as they can.
"Although there are a few hundred, I’ll try to do a general thank you note to the students and one to the faculty and staff," he said. "I have a few friends and co-workers who want to try to write back to some students who asked more specific questions or wanted a letter back."
Dickey said he and his staff are "always happy with the number of letters" that students turn in for the project each year.
"Fewer number of letters this year because of distance learners but more personal with the connection we had with Devin," he said.