Students, teachers and parents filled the gymnasium at Henry Zarrow International School in Tulsa on Nov. 16 to celebrate Veterans Day and the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War I. The standing-room only Veterans Day Program included patriotic songs, speeches and hundreds of elementary students waving poppies and miniature American flags.
The program also served as an opportunity for the school to raise awareness for the nationwide issue of Veteran homelessness. In October, the elementary school became one of eight schools nationally to accept the End Veteran Homelessness Challenge, a partnership among the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Association of Elementary School Principals and the American Student Council Association.
“We got an invitation from the federal offices asking us to participate, so we decided to join and say yes to the challenge,” said Raquel Astacio, a 3rd grade Science and Social Studies teacher at Henry Zarrow International. “I did not know that Veteran homelessness was such a big problem in the United States. We believe it’s a great cause.
Student councils at the eight schools have until Dec. 3 to raise the most money, household goods and clothing which will benefit homeless or at risk Veterans.
“We have already collected a lot of socks, hats, scarves and gloves,” said Astacio, sponsoring teacher for the student council. “We have shampoo, toiletries, lotion, toothpaste and tooth brushes. Somebody even donated a crockpot.”
Veterans who are exiting homelessness need essentials such as bed sheets, socks, cleaning supplies, pots, pans, plates, utensils, and glasses. By collecting these basic household items, students are helping Veterans transition to stable housing and into the next phase of their lives.
According to a survey conducted in January 2018 in the Tulsa Metro area, a total of 1,083 people were identified as being homeless. Of those, 113 were Veterans.
“There is still work to be done to make sure every Veteran has a place to call home,” said Melanie Stewart-Goldman, Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System (EOVAHCS) Homeless Program Manager. “The VA Homeless Program has relied on community partners for years to help fill the gaps to house Veterans, and donation programs like the End Veteran Homelessness Challenge are important to ensure Veterans will continue to receive the support they need to secure and maintain stable housing.”
On Nov. 16 during the school’s Veterans Day Program, Waco Blakley, a VA Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist and Iraq War Veteran, spoke to the students
about Veteran homelessness and thanked the school for participating in the challenge. After the program, Blakley said he was personally moved by the school’s support of Veterans.
“As a VA employee and just as importantly as a Veteran of 24 years, I greatly appreciated the enthusiasm of not only the children, but the teachers and all the supportive parents that were there,” he said. “It was very meaningful and something I’ll never forget.”
While the challenge will benefit local Veterans, Astacio hopes the challenge will also serve as an educational opportunity for the elementary students.
“I hope by doing all of this today, that they will remember that Veterans deserve our help and that we need to support them in every way that we can,” she said. “We are honored to be able to participate and do our small little part.”
When the challenge ends, the EOVAHCS Homeless Program will distribute the items to local Veterans in Eastern Oklahoma.
If you would like to support Henry Zarrow International and the End Veteran Homelessness Challenge, please email Raquel Astacio-Haley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story and photos by Nathan Schaeffer, Public Affairs Specialist, Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System