SILVER RUN — Before Charles Carroll Elementary School kicked off its annual Play Day, students, teachers and parents gathered on a grassy hill next to the school's basketball court to watch as five members of the U.S. Army presented the school with a flag that had been flown over Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan.
The ceremony was led by 1st Lt. Ian Sparks, who wanted to thank the school for sending 35 packages to the 137 soldiers in his battalion at the base. He was joined by four other service members in the U.S. Army Reserves: 1st Lt. James Dunaway, Spc. Frank Ember III, 1st Lt. Zachary Morris and Maryland Army National Guard recruiter Eric Wiggington.
Sparks said that while he, Dunaway and Ember were deployed in Afghanistan to help rebuild the country, he received a letter that he had 35 packages in the mail — not exactly a normal occurrence.
"I went to the mail room to check and it was full of boxes from Charles Carroll Elementary," Sparks, who grew up in Hampstead, told the audience of students, teachers and parents. "I recognized the name — I didn't go to the school but it was a local school, so I was pleasantly surprised by that."
They were care packages full of candy — Halloween candy, to be exact — along with cards and other items donated by students.
Cathy Steffens, who helped organize the effort, said she has sent care packages to soldiers when her brother was stationed in Iraq.
"It's really good for the kids to do something for someone else," said Steffens, whose children attended the school.
The school's PTA had been collecting donations for care packages at its annual Halloween event, but it wasn't until physical education teacher Liz Perna began collecting donations of candy and other items in her classroom in 2010 that the effort really grew, she said.
"I know it seemed like a lot, but it was perfect — there was plenty to go around and share the wealth," Sparks said.
After Sparks thanked the audience for their generosity and the service members presented the school with a certificate, a group of students read thank-you notes to the men they had written to.
"You are very brave!" said Keegan McGrew, a kindergartner at the school, into a microphone held by Will Hopkins, another physical education teacher at the school. "We are lucky."
Keegan's parents, Greg and Becky McGrew, who were among the crowd, were proud of their son.
"He's usually very nervous in front of crowds, but he did a great job," Greg McGrew said.
Hopkins said his father, David Hopkins Jr., served in the Army, so he understands how much it means to have someone recognize their service.
"With it being Memorial Day and Lt. Sparks was honoring us with the flag, it made perfect sense for us to have a ceremony," said Hopkins, who hoped it instilled a sense of patriotism in his students.
Perna said having the soldiers visit the school showed students how their generosity affected those on the receiving end.
"This was a little bit more real for them," Perna said. "I can tell them, but it's not the same as them seeing the people who receive it."
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Charles Carroll Principal Becky DuPree agreed that it was a great opportunity for students.
"Most of them are pretty aware of the fact that we have men and women overseas serving our country, but for them to actually meet people who are in those positions and to be able to thank them gives them a sense of pride and understanding of the sacrifices that our men and women make," DuPree said.
After the ceremony, students played games such as duck, duck, goose and kickball, threw footballs and played on the school's playground as part of Play Day, a countywide event held every year to allow kids to showcase what they have learned in physical education. Service members walked around and chatted with students and their parents.
"It's a great opportunity to get exposure working with kids over the Memorial Day weekend," Morris said. "It's good to give back to the effort they gave in."