By GENA MANGIARATTI
Daily Hampshire Gazette
NORTHAMPTON — Army Sgt. Gerard Peters of Easthampton not only had “the best veal I ever had” last week, but was reminded that younger people continue to appreciate his service.
Peters, 52, who was in the Army for 10 years that included the invasion of Grenada in 1983, was among five veterans from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds who attended a holiday luncheon in the Oliver Smith restaurant on the campus of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School last week.
The veterans were treated to a menu that included veal raised on the school’s farm, pasta, chicken salad, coconut shrimp soup and popovers, with desserts ranging from chocolate raspberry parfait to creme brulee. The students also presented the veterans with gifts of steel clocks made by the Smith Vocational manufacturing technology students and handwritten holiday cards.
“There was real loving and caring,” Peters said when reached at the VA hospital Tuesday. “It was a comfortable feeling being there.”
The event Dec. 11 marked the launch of a new partnership between Smith Vocational and the VA system through which National Honor Society students will participate in regular volunteer and community service opportunities with the veterans.
National Honor Society adviser Patricia Dandrea, who is also a health teacher at Smith Vocational, said the idea came about after the 15 honor society students took a community service trip to the VA hospital in October. During that visit, the students met with veterans ranging from the newly returned to those from the World War II era, and they all shared stories about their lives, schooling and service.
“I just think these personal encounters stay with people,” Dandrea said.
Anne Murray, voluntary services manager for the VA, said visits from students are valuable to the veterans, and that the Smith Vocational students were especially interested in hearing about their lives and service.
“What’s most impressive about those kids is, they get it about what the veterans did in serving in the military, and their gratitude is genuine,” Murray said this week.
She said their respect for the veterans was evident in the questions they asked, such as where they were stationed and what branches they served in, and that this sincere curiosity means a lot to veterans.
“When they’re with those kids from Smith Voke, they feel like what they did is affirmed,” Murray said.
After the initial visit, senior Jonathan Roberge, a culinary arts student and vice president of the honor society, said he started brainstorming ways they could continue this relationship, and suggested to Dandrea that they invite the veterans to have lunch at the school’s restaurant.
The luncheon took around three weeks of planning and was paid for by the school and its board of trustees. Board chairman Michael T. Cahillane, who himself served in the Air National Guard for six years, said he believes the partnership fills a niche for veterans in that it gives them opportunities to leave the VA hospital and have conversations with people in the community.
He said these connections for the veterans “fill a hole in their heart that needs to be filled with people reaching out to them.”
“I really am so proud of the school and the honor students and Patricia to take on this endeavor because it’s not light,” Cahillane said. “It’s a commitment.”
At the luncheon, the veterans and the students had another chance to share with each other about their lives.
Army veteran Virginia Tofalo, one of the two female veterans who attended the luncheon, said they both had a long conversation with students in Smith Vocational’s cosmetology program — honor society treasurer Emily Laroche among them — and are now planning to return to the school for pedicures.
“It was very informative on both sides,” Tofalo said of the luncheon. “Their curiosity was amazing.”
Tofalo, 51, lives at the VA but is originally from Lowell and attended Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsborough, where she studied business administration and accounting. She said her conversations with the students in Northampton brought her back to her own time at a vocational school.
“It was really nice,” she said. “I felt good being there with them.”
Karen Zerneri, a recreation therapist at the VA hospital, was among the staff who attended the luncheon. She said she believes the interactions with vocational students also gave the veterans a new perspective on education.
“Some veterans said, ‘I never liked school, but maybe if I had gone to a school that had all these offerings, I would have,’” she recalled.
At the same time, she said, students gained a new perspective of veterans beyond what they might see on the news.
“They don’t have a full picture of who the veterans are, and this way they get to see that veterans are no different from anybody else,” Zerneri said. “Everywhere we go there are veterans.”
Some of the National Honor Society students already have seen a more personal side of veterans. Roberge’s father is an Army veteran. Honor society president Nicole Ruszala’s father is a member of the Army Reserve and honor society secretary Miranda Clark’s uncle has served in the Marines.
“Veterans deserve so much more than they get credit for,” Clark, a carpentry student, said during a group interview with the four honor society officers, all 17. “They give up everything. They could lose their life in like a minute and they don’t think twice about it, and everyone takes that for granted.”
The students also said they enjoyed giving the veterans gifts because it allowed them to say “Thank you” in a way other than verbally.
“They’ve given us so much already,” Roberge said. “This is the least we can do for them.”
Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at email@example.com.
By GENA MANGIARATTI