Laurel Elementary School Principal Melinda Lee has known — or at least known of — Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Ballard for more than a year, communicating with him through phone calls and Ballard's mother while he was stationed with his battalion in Afghanistan.
But the principal and the soldier met for the first time Tuesday, Dec. 20, at the school, as Ballard, school staff and students held an assembly for Lee to thank her for the letter-writing drive she organized between her students and Ballard's soldiers — an assembly that took Lee entirely by surprise.
"Oh, my," Lee said as she walked into the media center, seeing it crowded with students, staff and members of the media — and at the front, Ballard. "It's nice to meet you."
Over the course of the last school year, Lee helped orchestrate a collection drive among her students, gathering together boxes of items like deodorant, soap, toothpaste and other hygiene products for soldiers in the 183 Maintenance Company, stationed in Shindand, Afghanistan. The troops were newly deployed, and their base didn't even have a supply station set up at first, said Ballard's mother, Nadirah Sauda, 62, so she reached out to the school for help.
"You were such a great help to my son, and to the troops in Afghanistan," Sauda, who lives in Laurel, told Lee. "You needed to be acknowledged. Laurel Elementary School needed to be acknowledged."
Sauda approached Lee, asking for her help, as the school year began in 2010. Lee said she "didn't think twice" about starting a collection for Sauda, Ballard and the troops.
"I just knew this was something we needed to do," Lee said. "I don't have family members or friends in the military, and I often think of families that do have soldiers, of the spouses, and I can't imagine not having that kind of support. … I knew we had to help, to do what we could, for those who don't have that support system."
Lee also asked the teachers at Laurel Elementary if any of their classes would be interested in writing letters to the soldiers. It was a task taken up by Melissa Maher's second-graders, and a task that resounded with Maher, whose husband served in Iraq and whose brother served in Afghanistan.
"It was a calling," Maher said. "It's uplifting, to let them know someone's thinking of them; it helps them to go on to the next day, through the tough times. I know how important it is to give."
The letters were of exceptional help to soldiers who might not have received regular correspondence otherwise, Ballard said.
"It meant a lot to them, to receive a letter from a child who has an open and honest heart, who is concerned about our welfare and safety, when it's really our job to be concerned about their welfare and safety," he said.
Sauda said the students put together care packages of supplies and wrote "stacks and stacks" of letters to the two dozen soldiers in Ballard's company before the soldiers returned to the United States at the end of July after a yearlong deployment. Homemade cookies were sent out last Christmas, too, but the student's letters, with sentiments ranging from pride and gratitude, to expressions of common interests — like basketball and football — brought the most energy and hope to the soldiers, Ballard said.
"(Lee has) fostered a program here that has instilled good morals and values," said Ballard, 39, of Colorado. "(The students) touched my heart, deeply, and I appreciate it. Every letter, card and picture gave us a greater reason to carry on, to fight for American freedom."
Ballard had been a Laurel Elementary student once, too, back in the "late '70s, early '80s," he said, and is a graduate of Laurel High. The morning's celebrations were more than just a surprise for Lee — it was a homecoming of sorts for the soldier.
"It's overwhelming, but at the same time, I feel at home in these halls," Ballard said. "(Receiving letters), it was personal. I felt that I still had that connection, that tie to the school, in that I had support from citizens who were actually still involved in helping their fellow brothers and sisters in arms get through tough times in war."