Jan. 24 marked the one-year anniversary of Prairie River Middle School’s “Freedom Pen” project, with students volunteering to produce 650 pens to date. If the program’s pace continues, production will break the 1,000-pen mark by the start of the 2018-19 school year.
During an official presentation last Tuesday, Tech Ed instructor/program head Pete McConnell and many of his young volunteer craftsmen were joined by members of the MAPS Board of Education, school administrators and representatives from local American Legion Post 1638, as 279 pens were turned over to Never Forgotten Honor Flight coordinator, co-founder and Vice-President of Marketing (Ret) Lt. Colonel James Campbell, for distribution to veterans aboard the 31st Never Forgotten Honor Flight.
The flight is scheduled for take-off from Mosinee’s Central Wisconsin Airport bound for Washington D.C. on April 23.
Each custom-made pen bears the name of its respective student manufacturer. In addition, each pen comes labeled with the material of which it is made, as well as the date of creation.
“These pens have become the most treasured item given to our veterans on each flight,” Campbell said Tuesday, as he held up one of the handmade pens, while addressing the nearly 50 people in attendance at PRMS’ TEE lab. “We give each veteran a gift bag with several items inside such as a jacket, hat and t-shirt. But I tell you, these pens are the one thing they never allow to leave their sight. Of all the things we give them, they know where their pen is at all times. These pens mean so much to them!”
The first pens rolled out of the lab last spring and have been produced for every NFHF veteran since. Currently, enough pens have been produced for veterans scheduled for the May and September flights. According to McConnell, students are currently working to produce pens for the veterans who will board the October 2018 flight.
“These kids may not know your name or your face,” McConnell said last Tuesday, as he addressed veterans in attendance. “But they know what you did for this country and they appreciate you. This is their way of showing it; by producing these pens for you.”
As the number of pens produced has grown, so has the outpouring of community support; which is reflected in the $8,200 worth of cash donations.
The roots of the program began in October 2016, when McConnell was awarded a $1,000 grant through the Merrill Area Community Foundation’s “Beyond Crayons and Computers” program. The grant program invites Merrill teachers to submit applications that are not only innovative and creative, but also involve parents, teachers and other members of the community.
Thanks in part to further support from community donors, the program now has the use of eight lathes with two carbide tipped tools, pen mandrels, three band saws, one drill press, two bench vises, and 700 pen kits. Key donors to the project include: Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin, $2,000; Merrill Community Bank, $1,350; American Legion Post 46, $750; Frank and Dawn Sus, $750; Gary and Stacey Hanson, $750; David and Sara Wendorf, $750; Yurgen and Ruth Ann Markewycz, $750; The ROC LLC, $350; Greg Hinz, $150; Robert Smith, $150; Richard and Evelyn Bjorklund, $200; and Merrill Lions Club, $250.
Following the presentation Tuesday, the 41 current project participants – who have produced closed to 300 pens so far this school year – were presented with a certificate and a handshake from Campbell. Student volunteers include: Brenna Allen, Anika Bartz, Bryce Brown, Madalia Burrows, Brandon Ellerman, Ben Fryer, Xavier Gronholm, Hannah Glaza, Connor Haynes, Kieran Hehling, Jack Hoock, Carter Jensen, Ashley Johnson, Sam Johns, Logan Kanitz, Ryan Kevilus, Zach Klimek, Tyler Krenz, Evan Jaeger, Evelyn Marcott, Allie Maschke, Eli Prescott, Megan Proulx, Brody Mattmiller, Allie Renzelman, Ethan Robbins, Dominic Roper, Abby Schmidt, Austin Schmidt, Trevor Schmidt, Brennan Schneider, Courtney Schneider, Claire Schultz, Grace Schultz, Ashlyn Semling, Draven Slewitzke, Levon Vandergeest, Erica Wickman, Darrin Wiederhoeft, Haily Weisman, Makenna Wimmer and Laney Zuelsdorff.
“This project continues to touch lives and benefit students on so many levels,” MAPS Superintendent John Sample noted. “It truly reflects the power of strong community partnership and civic responsibility at a high level.”
The Never Forgotten Honor Flight, an all-volunteer organization based in Wausau, gives veterans who served during World War II, Korea and Vietnam an opportunity to see the memorials built in their honor. Since its first flight in 2010, Never Forgotten Honor Flights have carried 2,747 Northern Wisconsin veterans to Wa
shington, D.C. free of charge. To provide free flights to veterans, the Never Forgotten Honor Flight is supported solely by private and commercial donations.