WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington’s iPods for Wounded Veterans is paying tribute to the late Joanne Benton, former Superintendent of Schools, by renaming its prestigious “Dear Soldier Letter Award” to the “Joanne Benton Dear Soldier Letter Award.”
The announcement was made by Paul Cardello, Chairman of the iPods for Wounded Veterans, during a presentation at a recent Wilmington School Committee Meeting.
The Dear Soldier program encourages students to write letters to injured servicemen and servicewomen. With Benton’s blessing, the program began right here in Wilmington in 2011 with 18 students in a first grade classroom at the Woburn Street School writing letters to injured Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The program has since grown to 50 schools across five states.
“On January 1, 2011, iPods for Wounded Veterans started a Dear Soldiers letter writing program,” said Cardello. “On February 1, 2011, I went to Superintendent Joanne Benton to get Wilmington students to start writing letters to injured servicemen and women. Mrs. Benton fully embraced the idea to educate the students about military service… Her vision ultimately took our program to a national level.”
Cardello praised Benton for all she did “behind the scenes” for the letter writing program, referring to her as the “brains” of the operation. He also praised her for the help she provided with the organization’s Barnes and Noble bookfair fundraisers.
“I had no idea how to run a bookfair. How did I get myself into this? I had to talk to the Superintendent,” recalled Cardello. “She told me ‘No problem, Paul, I’ve done 65 of them.’ And we’ve broken fundraising records in 3 of the last 6 bookfairs. That’s part of Joanne Benton’s legacy.”
Cardello read a letter from the Department of Defense thanking iPods for Wounded Veterans for distributing school letters during a April 2017 visit.
“Your faithful support and commitment over the years is invaluable. Please accept our sincerest appreciation for your generosity and goodwill, but most of all for your support of our brave men and women who serve this great nation,” wrote Melissa K. Burke, Lt. Commander, Nurse Corps, U.S. Navy.
“This is the highest honor — on Department of Defense letterhead — that we could have received,” said Cardello. “I look at Superintendent Benton as a visionary. She took as from something so small to a national level.”
The School Committee was pleased to hear that the Award, which has been given annually since 2013 to two students who participate in the program, has been renamed to honor Benton.
“The School Committee is very moved that you’re recognizing Joanne Benton,” said Chair Steve Bjork. “Every member on this committee feels exactly as you do — she was a force to be reckon with.”
“When you first came to Joanne, she was a little skeptical,” School Committee member Peggy Kane told Cardello. “But as you kept going, and having one activity after another, she said that you we’re going to do it. She was so proud to be working with you in this area. And I’m so pleased you’ve come so far.”
Cardello noted that the Dear Soldier program continues to grow. He announced that the Massachusetts DECA organization will be encouraging all their members to participate in the Dear Soldier program next year.
“I think Joanne was smiling down when she heard the news,” added Cardello.
Local Heroes Club At Wilmington High School
WHS Science Teacher Dawn Martel, club advisor for the WHS Local Heroes Club, discussed the club’s work. The club, affiliated with the iPods for Wounded Veterans, helps organize the town-wide Dear Soldier campaign. Club members also create “gratitude scrolls” displayed in the halls of the high school where students can write kind messages to injured soldiers. The scrolls are then hung in the halls of the hospitals for the injured soldiers to read. Club members also send 3D snowflakes, holiday cards, flags, and gift bags — filled with student-donated cards, puzzles and toiletries, to injured soldiers and veterans. The club is also working on the veteran pictorial display hung in the school library, which commemorates students and faculty members who have served in the armed services. Martel noted that the Club, and the school system, was recently awarded the iPods for Wounded Veteran’s Unity Healing Wreath Award for all its efforts in bringing some joy to injured soldiers. The red, white and blue wreath is on display in the high school library.
Dear Soldier Award Winner Mary Robales
One of this year’s two Dear Soldier Award winners, Mary Roables, then read a poignant letter that she wrote to a soldier. Despite graduating from WHS earlier this month, she is staying involved with iPods for Wounded Veterans, helping out with the organization’s PR and website.
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