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From Garden Banquet to Community Tradition

Brian Layer is the featured speaker at this year’s Veterans Day event

Inviting veterans to school started two decades ago, when then principal Fred Gronke, both a Kent City graduate and a retired U.S. Marine, brought vegetables from his garden and cooked dinner for a small group.

The idea was to do something special and to allow students to learn about and from their experiences, said Jim Jakiemiec, a teacher who organizes the annual event.

Nick Kaminsky was in junior high that first year. Now, after 12 years as a U.S. Marine, he is one of the honored guests.

High School Shows Year-long Support for Veterans

Besides a Veterans Day celebration, there are other very visible ways Kent City Schools honors residents who have served in the military.

This year, at the annual military appreciation football game on Sept. 22, T-shirts were sold, and a “seven-on-seven tournament” and blood drive were held to raise funds. High school principal Bill Crane said a check for $5,300 will be presented to the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans at today’s assembly.

Also, a permanent memorial was placed on high school property just over four years ago. To increase its visibility, junior Alex Drent raised funds for and oversaw installation of seven flags, poles and lighting. A member of Boy Scout Troop 111, Alex took on the project to complete the requirements for Scouting’s highest rank, Eagle.

Alex said it took more than a year to raise the approximately $3,000 needed to make improvements. He and fellow scouts spent four weekends installing the display, including flags representing the five branches of service, the United States and MIA/POWs.

Alex said he has several relatives who have served in the armed forces, including his father.

“It was the best way I could think of to give back to the veterans in my community,” he said.

“I was surprised at the level of the ceremony when I returned,” Kaminsky said. “I remember assemblies with a handful of vets. They and the whole band fit on the stage. Now (the event) takes up the entire high school gym.”

More than 100 veterans attend each year, and every one is introduced by name, branch of service and when and how long they served, said Mary Portell, an auxiliary member of AmVets Post 123 who has been helping out all 20 years, including that first dinner.

And veterans have noticed.

“It means a lot to me how they handle this event,” said Kaminsky, adding that he hopes students who share his childhood dream of signing up for service will learn something from the day.

History Made Local

This year’s featured speaker is Kent City graduate Brian Layer. He served in the U.S. Army from 1982 to 2012, with assignments in Korea, Germany, and Iraq.

“I hope the students take away the value of service — not just military service in particular but service in general — (of) putting the good of others ahead of their own,” he said.

“Service members do their part defending the country, but all of us have a responsibility to make our country worth fighting for both nationally and locally,” Layer continued. “A simple act of kindness to a neighbor in need, an informed and thoughtful vote, volunteering – -are all important acts of citizenship that form the fabric of of our great nation.”

Kent City graduate and veteran Tony Van Gessel is part of the Patriot Guard Riders who travel to honor fallen soldiers as well as to stand in flag lines at area airports during the holidays to welcome home service members.

“We know what they do is not fun — it is hard,” he said, “and we want them to know we stand behind them.”

Dick Gould, who served from 1966-1969, says that having the opportunity to share with students is important. “This is our history and it is something they should learn in a positive way,” he said.

Many veterans from the area have attended past honor assemblies

Learning Moments Every Year

A few years ago, former Kent City students in country band Gunner and the Grizzly Boys shared an original song written for the Veterans Day assembly. A few students planned to leave their seats to shake hands with a veteran to add to the effect.

“It ended with the entire student body going to shake the veterans’ hands during the performance,” recalled Jakiemiec. “It was incredible; veterans were crying. You can’t plan for this kind of response nor explain that kind of feeling.”

Another year a Black Hawk helicopter landed near the school and students were able to climb aboard. There also has been a live artillery demonstration, artifact displays and a visit from a 104-year-old World War vet.

Across the District

Middle School students are invited to today’s event and have activities designed around service throughout the day.

The elementary holds a patriotic assembly of their own with special activities all day, and twice a year veterans from AmVets Post 123 visit for flag raising ceremonies.

“This school system and this little community is so supportive and very in tune to veterans,” Gould said. “It is a good feeling.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst was a reporter for SNN covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts.


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