By Heather Kline and Sam Campbell
The Fort Leonard Wood United Services Organization and Blue Star Families held a special drive-through celebration for military-dependent, graduating Waynesville High School seniors May 9.
In the interest of public health, the graduating class of 2020 has had to adjust expectations for their final year of school; heavily anticipated traditional rites of passage, such as prom, field trips and commencement have been put in a tentative status as the city and district work to keep students safe.
USO and Blue Star Families volunteers presented 60 outgoing students with gift cards and video conferencing devices so they can stay in touch with others while practicing social distancing. In good humor, the organizations attached the gift cards to rolls of toilet paper.
“It was a great day because everyone was so energetic,” said Kelly Brownfield, FLW USO director. “The vibe was upbeat. We made sure from the time they rolled up with the vehicle, our volunteers were upbeat, dancing, cheering – just cheering them on and cheering on their achievements.”
Event organizers said they wanted to show students some community support for their achievements in case a conventional graduation ceremony isn’t possible.
“We just wanted to make sure to lift their spirits during this time and show them that we care; we came together to do this for them,” Brownfield said. “Our military children, to begin with, are the most resilient children I’ve ever known.”
Tai Kimes, Blue Star Families chapter director, donned the Waynesville Tiger mascot costume for the event. She said students wanted to dance and take photos with her, and their reactions were heartwarming.
“It’s beautiful to go back (through) the pictures and see,” she said.
Students said they enjoyed the celebration.
“I’m so thankful to the USO and Blue Star Families for coming out to support all of us,” said Anna Hilburgh, a graduating senior and daughter of Col. Adam Hilburgh, 3rd Chemical Brigade commander. “This support is lifting our spirits. I hope the juniors behind us won’t have to go through what we’re going through, but if anything does happen like this, they can see that they will have support from the community.”
Her classmate, Sarah McKenzie, said the celebration was a welcome surprise.
“I was not expecting any of the things the community is doing for us, but I love it and it shows they care,” she said.
Military children adapt to changing circumstances as their families may have to move with every new set of orders, Kimes said, but that doesn’t mean this year has been easy.
“I was a military (child), prior service, so all of this really hits home for me,” she said. “It’s the first time that I actually feel a part of a community, so it’s important to make sure that my actions as the chapter director of Blue Star Families is doing that for other military kids, to where they actually feel a part of this community.”
The event’s staff volunteered their time over the weekend while adhering to all social distancing protocols, as well.
“We wanted to make sure to obey all orders in place,” Brownfield said. “We were all in proper gear, masks and gloves, and we let people ahead of time know that we would be prepared and taking special precautions.”
And according to Brownfield, the entire event was organized in less than three weeks. She said the staff at the USO and Blue Star Families knew they would have to act fast with summer and permanent-change-of-station season approaching.
Kimes agreed, and said a strong community is key to giving these students the support they deserve.
“We all can do so much more together,” she said.