Every year, students collect soda can “flip tops” for the benefit of the Ronald McDonald house in Boston. Every fall, the school organizes a food drive to supply Father Sweeney’s Food Pantry at St. Mary’s Parish in Plymouth. And, each year the school chooses one cause to support in a unique, school-wide service project. This year, the project chosen by the Sacred Heart Elementary School student body, “Project We Care,” was to benefit the men and women serving in Iraq.

Students in grades one through six put the finishing touches on Project We Care this week. Assembly lines of student-helpers filled goodie-bags with personal care products and special treats. School staff and parent volunteers shipped the goodies to American soldiers serving in Iraq and Kuwait.

The goal of the project, which ran from Advent through Lent, was to provide small comforts for soldiers away from home. Items included disposable razors, lip balm, eye drops, shampoo, Gold Bond foot powder, playing cards, Nerf footballs, fruit roll-ups, gum, packets of cocoa mix, Pop Tarts, and much more. Many of the items are not “standard government issue” or if they are, they run out quickly.

Students and parent volunteers solicited some items from manufacturers, and a number of fund-raisers provided money to purchase other items. Some funds came from the Student Council sale of “Support Our Troops” silicone bracelets. Some came from the proceeds of a “Bread & Broth” fast day. (During Lent, students donated $1 to Project We Care and went without their traditional lunch of sandwich, fruit and snacks. Instead, they ate only soup and a roll.) Some funds came from the sale of Mardi Gras beads and masks, which students were allowed to wear on a festive “no uniform day” on the eve of Lent. Also, each classroom was home to a piggy bank that collected dollars and cents that students earned doing extra chores at home.

In addition to providing much needed items for the soldiers, Project We Care provided Sacred Heart students many opportunities to reflect on the life of a soldier and to share of themselves. Each student sent a personal greeting at Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. The “Support Our Troops” bracelets, in addition to being a successful fundraiser, served as a reminder to pray for soldiers far away from home. On Bread & Broth day, students had an opportunity to understand how little many people in the world eatevery day. And by giving up their small change and extra chore money, students learned how to do without an “extra” in order to provide for a young soldier’s need.

“We strive to provide experiences to our students that will enable them to lead and to interact with others in actively shaping the future of the Church and the global community,” said principal Sister Ann Therese. “Also, service to others teaches an understanding of, and concern for, those in our community who need our support.”

Earlier this year, the school sent 400 new t-shirts printed with the “We Care” logo to the soldiers in a transportation unit led by Col. Walter Juzukonis. Donnelly School Apparel (the Sacred Heart uniform supplier) donated the shirts, and Sacred Heart parent Ruth Finn, owner of Special Tees in Plymouth, donated the screen printing. Students have also been sending letters to the soldiers as individuals and as classes, via mail and email.

About 40 students are regular penpals with soldiers in Col. Juzukonis’ group. The soldiers write about what they are doing in Iraq and Kuwait and about the families and pets they miss at home. “Thank you for thinking of us and taking the time to write,” wrote one soldier. “I am proud to protect America and help to keep you safe.”

In April, Colonel Juzukonis’ soldiers sent the students a gift of surplus Army hats, and a trophy from Sgt. Jose Monzon that read “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The soldiers also sent a number of questions for the students. They wanted to know how Project We Care came about, and what the students are learning from it. Sgt. Crystal Rothermel wanted to know what impact corresponding with and sending gifts to the soldiers had on the students.

Community service is an integral part of the Sacred Heart experience. Last year, the school raised enough money for Heifer International to provide two arks of livestock and other agricultural aid to Indonesian tsunami victims. The previous year, the school-wide service project benefited Operation Smile, an organization that provides doctors and medical supplies to repair cleft palate and other facial deformities.