WEST HAVEN – Notre Dame High School senior Ben Pello thought writing his college admissions essays was tough until he sat down to write a letter to an unknown soldier in Afghanistan.
“I was writing how stressful the college application process is and then I realized that what he was going through was so much more stressful than what I was,” said Mr. Pello, a Wallingford resident. “Sitting down and writing the letter was actually a relief because it was a break from the college application process and really put things in perspective for me.”
Mr. Pello was among 40 Notre Dame seniors who wrote to soldiers in Afghanistan as part of a letter-writing campaign sparked by Army Pvt. First Class Thomas Yagovane, who joined the Army after graduating from Notre Dame in 2014 and is stationed in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Private Yagovane keeps in close contact with Notre Dame Skills Center coordinator Alicia Ogren by phone, text and email and, in a recent conversation, mentioned that many U.S. soldiers never receive letters from home.
That was all Ms. Ogren, who comes from a military family, had to hear to swing into action. She quickly enlisted the help of English teacher Patti DelVecchio, and together, they asked for senior volunteers who would write letters to unknown soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. Students wrote the letters on their own time, though all letters were submitted to Ms. DelVecchio for review. Students received extra credit for participating in the project, but most said the added points were secondary to reaching out to servicepeople protecting our country.
Ms. DelVecchio said the students’ biggest challenge was crafting letters to soldiers they did not know. Most students included a little information about their families, sports and hobbies and then looked for common ground, such as their favorite sports teams or their Super Bowl picks.
Ms. DelVecchio, who taught Pvt. Yagovane English in his sophomore and senior years, said she was floored by the response, particularly among students who are often so preoccupied by their own future plans during their senior year.
“I didn’t think I would get the response that I did,” she said. “But the funny thing is that a lot of the kids are already excited to get a response from their letters. A lot of them are hoping that this becomes a pen-pal relationship and are really eager to hear from the soldiers.”
Trevonn Cohen of Hamden said it was initially difficult to write to a stranger, but then he realized that soldiers put their lives on the line for people they don’t know every day. “So you talk a little about yourself and a little about what their interests are,” he said.
Eddie Whitman of Orange said he spent much of his letter outlining his goals in life, while Ryan Tonelli of Milford concentrated on his love of sports and the college football playoffs.
The letters were mailed to the soldiers on Feb. 12, and there is something of an unofficial competition among the students to see who is the first to get a response. For his part, Pvt. Yagovane hopes to return to his Milford home in mid-March, when his deployment will be over.
There are several letter-writing campaigns for servicemen overseas, including www.operationgratitude.com, www.operationwearehere.com and www.amillionthanks.org.