Velis talks service, leadership with students

Paper Mill Elementary School second grade students Emilee Buoniconti and Eric Dean interview state Rep. John C. Velis Oct. 15. (Photo by Hope E. Tremblay)

WESTFIELD – Some days, being a state representative are tougher than others.

Oct. 15 was not one of those days for state Rep. John C. Velis. Velis spent the morning speaking to second grade students at Paper Mill Elementary School on a variety of topics centered around his work as a legislator as well as a U.S. Army major.

“Say good morning to state Rep. John Velis,” teacher Kathy Knapik said to the students as Velis walked into the room. “Now say good morning to Major John Velis. And now say good morning to Coach John Velis.”

Knapik noted that Velis wore many hats and he was happy to wear them all as he chatted with students about service and leadership.

Velis said the two are intertwined and all fit in the many hats he wears.

“To me, the definition of service is putting the welfare and well being of someone else above yourself,” he said.

Velis and the students exchanged some ideas about service, with Velis noting that teachers also work in service to students.

Velis said leadership — and service – begins at an early age and recounted a memory when he saw leadership among his young peers.

“When I was about your age I was in school and there were two kids being picked on,” he said. “Other students were watching and laughing, but there were two students who walked up to them and told them to stop. That was leadership.”

Velis said leadership is about doing the right thing even when it’s not easy.

“Leaders do the most difficult things even if it’s not the most popular thing to do,” he said.

Velis fielded questions about his work in Boston, his mission in the Army and everything from whether he ever called out sick as a legislator (which he has not) to what he likes to do in his free time (read and work out).

During the discussion, Knapik’s students took notes and wrote about what they learned later in the day.

“He has two jobs.  He has leadership because he serves in the army and he makes laws.  He serves our country,” wrote Mackenzie St. Peter.

For at least one student, Velis’ recollection about watching fellow students stand up to bullies was taken to heart.

“Today I invited someone who was sitting alone on the Buddy Bench to play a game with pinecones and acorns.  Kindness is a type of service,” the student wrote.

During the presentation, a student asked Velis what was the first vote he participated in. Velis said he almost missed taking the vote.

“I was sworn-in and my family was there with me and I started to leave to go to lunch with them when someone stopped me and said since I was sworn-in, I had to go vote,” said Velis.

Velis, a former member of the Westfield Commission for Citizens with Disabilities, said he was very happy a colleague directed him to vote that day because his first vote was in support of legislation to strengthen protection for people with autism.

Student Nolan Kozikowski noted that Velis’ first vote was a display of leadership.

“The first time he voted, he voted on a law to help people with autism.  He showed leadership by helping others,” he wrote.
Students heard Velis’ message.
“Leaders help other people.  Leaders protect people.  Leaders stay calm.  I can be a leader.  My mom tells me how to be nice to other people.  She’s a leader,” wrote Dustin Piper.
One student focused on Velis’ fashion choice Tuesday.
“He had a nice suit and a nice tie. He is a nice guy,” observed the student.
For Velis, the presentation was fun.

“This is my favorite part of what I do,” he said.

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