When the 29th Never Forgotten Honor Flight rolls down the tarmac of Central Wisconsin Airport on the morning of May 22 bound for Washington DC, each of the 94 veterans will be carrying with them a personalized gift from a Prairie River Middle School 8th grade student; in the form of a custom-made pen with the name of its respective student manufacturer.
In addition, each pen will come labeled with the material of which it is made, as well as the date of creation.
The pens will be a product of the “Freedom Pen” program, spearheaded by 8th grade Manufacturing and Construction teacher Pete McConnell.
The roots of the program began in October, when McConnell was awarded a $1,000 grant from the “Beyond Crayons and Computers” program.
Funded through the Merrill Area Community Foundation, the Beyond Crayons and Computers program invites teams of teachers from 3-year-old programs through the high school, to submit grant applications that are not only innovative and creative, but also involve parents, teachers and other members of the community.
“I want to create a project that promotes community involvement, technical skill development, volunteerism, and patriotism all at the same time,” McConnell said, during a reception for grant recipients in early November.
Last year the foundation awarded a total of $11,893 in grants, the most since 2010.
Then in January, McConnell brought the Freedom Pen project to fruition, following a trip to Sun Prairie for a day of training with teacher Mike Roth of Cardinal Upper Middle School.
“After I received the grant I was eager to bring this technology to the kids,” McConnell explains. “Mike and his students have been producing the pens for a few years now, so I went down to Sun Prairie to learn the ropes. When I got back I couldn’t wait to get started making these awesome pens.”
As fate would have it, a phone call from McConnell to NFHF co-founder James Campbell regarding the pens would prove to be music to Campbell’s ears.
“When Pete first called me about this, the timing could not have been any better!” Campbell adds. “It just so happened the Tech Ed teacher in Wisconsin Rapids, who had been leading the project to produce pens for our veterans, recently retired. We were looking at sending our last box of pens on the April flight – that is until I heard from Pete. I just couldn’t believe it!
“It’s great on so many levels to have communities reaching out to us, especially schools. To see teachers and students willing to get on board to help us is amazing. We have received so much support from so many schools and communities in our 12-county district; from kindergarteners doing fund raisers to students of all ages writing mail call letters to our veterans. And now we have an entire tech-ed program reaching out to make pens for us. These pens are something the veterans have come to cherish, they see them as a keepsake. I can’t begin to express how appreciative we are.”
The initial goal McConnell set out to accomplish was to manufacture 100 pens between January and the departure of the Honor Flight in late May.
However, due to the overwhelming amount of student interest, by late February McConnell’s pen manufacturers were on track to surpass that goal well ahead of time; having completed 75.
“The amount of interest has just been mind boggling,” McConnell adds. “I was hoping this would be something students would be interested in, but I had no idea it would catch on so quickly. The kids would seriously be in the shop working on these every day if they could. They really embrace the idea of giving back to the men and women who have served our country. It’s great! The more students we have on-board the higher the chances we can continue to make pens for every honor flight.”
In an effort to bring that vision to fruition, McConnell has begun spreading the word of the project.
In February, word reached Gary Hanson, owner of Brews Brothers of Weston. As a result, Hanson donated a 10-inch variable speed lathe for the project. A lathe is the machine used to manufacture the pens.
But McConnell isn’t stopping there.
“I want to see this program last for many, many years,” he said. “The program got off the ground with the ‘Beyond Crayons and Computers’ grant and now I would see like to see it continue with support from the community.”
As part of McConnell’s vision, he would like to see the addition of two more lathes; making four total and quadrupling the students’ manufacturing output.
“I plan to keep getting out there and spreading the word. The student interest is there, we have about 30 students total so far and more are showing interest every day. Now all we need is the funding to keep it going,” McConnell adds with a grin.
According to MAPS Superintendent John Sample, McConnell and his young manufacturing crew have full administrative support.
“Mr. McConnell has developed a unique project, not only for his students, but one that will be cherished by each veteran able to participate in the Honor Flight program.” Sample adds.
“Our students are able to create a wonderful project and experience the gratitude one feels when giving back to those who have sacrificed for our country.”
Currently students participate in the project on their spare time, from 3:30 PM-5 PM on various days throughout the week.
Pete McConnell can be reached Monday-Friday at Prairie River Middle School, 715-536-9593.