Moorestown students strike a stars-and-stripes pose for veterans

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Students slap hands with Navy Petty Officer Jin Choe at William Allen Middle School in Moorestown. The school formed a living heart design for the Wounded Warrior Project. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

“I want to say, ‘Thank you for your service,’?” said Marissa Colbeck, 14. “?‘What you do is brave, and I wouldn’t be all right without you, so thanks for taking care of us.’?”

Said fellow eighth-grader Kevin Calhoun: “It’s the least we can do.”

What they did was pretty impressive.

Right in time for Memorial Day, “Hearts for Heroes” was the name given to the effort organized by Patty Watson, a patriotic volunteer, mother and former nurse from near Buffalo, N.Y., who has a New Jersey connection.

Donning white, red, or blue T-shirts donated by TD Bank, the students and many of school’s staff members formed a giant heart containing a star and stripes that was photographed from a height of about 105 feetfrom the bucket of a local firetruck. The aerial photograph, the 30th that Watson said she’s coordinated, is to be posted on her website, www.pattyspeoplepictures, where troops can view images of support from home.

But the project will provide more than just moral support. Proceeds from the sale of prints, stickers, and magnets with the photo will go to two charities that aid veterans, the Bob Woodruff Foundation and the Wounded Warrior Project. William Allen this year has made the latter group the focus of a school-wide service project that has included other fund-raisers.

Eighth-grade civics teacher Katelynn Dickstein said she learned of the Warrior project through a friend who is a wounded veteran, then suggested it to the school.

Helping the charity “unites the whole school and helps support this new generation of veterans,” Dickstein said.

Even if students do not agree with the military mission, aiding service people in need “teaches them to be compassionate,” she said.

Various school groups have done charitable projects before, but this was the first taken up by everyone, said principal Carole Butler.

“The message is always to give back when you can what you can,” Butler said.

That meshed well with Watson’s purpose behind the aerial photos she began to coordinate after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The idea really was to teach children about patriotism,” said Watson, who also organized aerial photo events for other causes, including the fight against cancer and — Eagles fans will understand — to support the Buffalo Bills.

Up to Wednesday, all Watson’s projects had been in the Empire State. However, Watson, who is a mother of four and married to a anesthesiologist, knew she and William Allen would be a good fit when she heard about the school’s efforts for veterans. Her best friend and nursing school roommate Jill Armstrong lives in Moorestown.

Organizing a photo with several hundred people, however, is not a task to embark on lightly. Painting the lines where the children would stand was done over three days, sometimes in the rain, she said.

But the sun was in fine form on Wednesday. Representatives of the Navy and the Marine Corps took part in the ceremony. After the photo was taken, the school’s Treble Choir sang “God Bless America.” Giveaway frisbees were flung to eager middle-schoolers; one of the Navy petty officers, Brett Vaccaro, 26, had a particularly impressive arm.

Despite the festive spirit, students said they were mindful why they were there and the reasons behind the service work they have done this year.

Peter Vosbikian, 14, said there have been several service members in his family, including a great-grandfather, a fighter pilot who died in World War II, and a late grandfather who served in multiple conflicts. During the year, Vosbikian has contributed to his school’s Wounded Warrior Project efforts.

“It really came into perspective for me last night at the Phillies game,” Vosbikian said. Veterans brought out the bases, including one man who walked with a cane. “It dawned on me these are real people, and they need our help.”

Last year, said Mike DiMarino, 14, Memorial Day just seemed like an occasion for a barbeque with the family. But “since we’ve been doing all these projects, it reminds you [to] celebrate what they’re doing and remember the soldiers fighting for our freedom.”

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.