After months of communicating via letters, cards and Skype, a fourth-grade class at Waupaca Learning Center and a soldier met face to face for the first time.
Amy Lemkuil’s class erupted in screams Friday, Jan. 30, when they learned Jesse Lewis was on his way from the school office to their classroom.
They quickly left the room and climbed on top of the two rows of chairs which had been moved from the classroom to the hallway. They stood on them to create a tunnel for Lewis.
Students from another class moved into the hallway as well and held pom poms.
“They got special permission to put the chairs in the hall from Mr. (John) Erspamer and make a tunnel for him (Lewis),” Lemkuil said.
Erspamer, WLC’s principal, joined in the celebration as well.
Lewis, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, lives in Milwaukee and has a connection to Waupaca.
“My dad was born in Waupaca,” he said. “This is one place I wanted to come home to.”
After nine months of serving in the Middle East, Lewis received a homecoming from Lemkuil’s students.
Among her students this year is Zack Mondello. His mother, Maureen Mondello, and Lewis are cousins.
“This started around Veterans Day,” Lemkuil said. “I knew Zach had military people in his family.”
When Maureen told Lemkuil she Skyped once in a while with her cousin who was in Kuwait, Lemkuil found a way to introduce her whole class to Lewis.
“We Skyped him on Veterans Day,” Lemkuil said. “We did a flag folding demonstration.”
The students sent cards and decorations to Lewis and Skyped him again just before their Christmas break.
“We did a USO show, elementary style,” she said.
They sent Lewis more cards and decorations for his barracks.
Lewis sent every student a National Guard 32nd Division patch, along with information about the division, which dates back to World War I.
In addition, he sent one U.S. flag patch, stitched backwards, and challenged the students to find out why it was made the way.
The student who answered correctly received the patch.
Lewis went overseas with the 32nd Military Engagement Team, and on a bulletin board, the students kept track of where he went.
He joined the National Guard in 2006.
“I joined because I was in college, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he told the students.
Lewis said he wanted to serve and help others. Joining the National Guard also helped him pay for college.
He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and works full time with Marquette University’s Army ROTC program.
His wife, Mary, joined him in visiting the fourth-grade class.
“The first couple months were hard,” she told the students. “It is just the two of us. I kept busy.”
She tried to not focus on how much she missed her husband.
“I exercised every day. I cooked more,” she said.
At WLC, Lemkuil’s class had a banner for Lewis. They sang the national anthem, read poems and ate pieces of cake with him.
Lewis showed them items he brought home for his family and friends and also told the students about the unit’s work in nation building.
They promoted strong ties between countries and the United States, especially with Jordan, he said.
“We identified difficulties, problems they face. Everywhere we went, the people were just amazing,” Lewis said. “Jordan, unfortunately, these great people are being surrounded and affected by turmoil.”
He told Lemkuil’s students to be “grateful they live in a great place.”
Her students spent last week preparing for his visit, and Lewis said it was the only class he communicated with during his tour overseas.
Lewis arrived back in the United States on Jan. 15 and in Wisconsin on Jan. 22.
“When we got home, it was nice to eat good food and see nice grass,” he said. “We landed in Baltimore. It was very cold when we got home, and we were all dressed in clothes for warmer weather overseas.”
Lewis said it was difficult to say good bye to the people they helped.
“But another team was coming in to help,” he said.
Lemkuil said her class loved communicating with him and planning the surprise.
“It has been so positive for him and for us. We’ve been honored to do it,” she said.
He appreciated their support.
“It’s an amazing experience,” Lewis said. “The kids have been extremely supportive, sending us cards, the Skyping, everything today. Having big support from back home is so important.”