IUSD schools partner with local group Team Kids for record-setting show of support for troops

Team Kids Miles and Sam… Thank you for serving our country and risking your lives for all of us, people who you have never even met. …

… My name is Kylie and I am in kindergarten. I want to thank you for helping protect America. …

… Thank you for fighting for me and the country. If we didn’t have you then our country will not be safe. …

Inside a ’60s-era school bus adorned with glossy blue and white paint, thousands of handwritten notes were packaged and a handful were on display, each awaiting the opportunity to brighten the day of a member of the U.S. military stationed in another corner of the world. The messages were penned by children of different ages, backgrounds and interests, but all expressed a common sentiment:

Thank you.

IUSD students from 10 elementary schools, one K-8 and one high school have worked with the service-learning group Team Kids on the campaign to generate these notes of gratitude for troops serving overseas. As a little added motivation, the group set an ambitious challenge to write more than 10,000 letters in just 30 days — or enough to earn a spot in the Guinness World Records.

Monday marked the official deadline, and representatives from Team Kids staged a final writing session outside Vista Verde School, producing yet another stack of thank-yous. A few hours later, they had a record-smashing tally of 12,266 letters. And still more were coming in.

“It’s been such an inspiration to all of us to receive these letters,” Team Kids founder and CEO Julie Hudash told the NewsFlash. “For the kids, they get to know that they have the power to cheer someone up who is serving across the globe.”

Participating schools in Irvine included Alderwood, Bonita Canyon, Brywood, DeerfieldEastshore, Northwood, Oak Creek, Springbrook and University Park elementary schools, as well as Vista Verde (a K-8) and University High School. Though IUSD campuses were responsible for more than half of the letters, contributions arrived from as far away as Massachusetts and Maine after word spread through social media.

But it was fitting that the drive concluded at Vista Verde, where Team Kids sprouted from an outpouring of generosity about 13 years ago.

In 2001, the school pulled out all the stops to raise money for a 3-year-old boy who needed treatment for a rare heart condition. Students sold popsicles, held coin drives and organized a pancake breakfast with firefighters to reach their fundraising goal. But it didn’t end there. The success of that project inspired the creation of Team Kids, which quickly established a playbook for education-based community service in schools. Indeed, in just the last three years, 30 schools and nearly 22,000 students have taken the Team Kids Challenge.

Second-graders in Heather Caswell's class write thank-you notes to U.S. troops stationed overseas.This year, the organization also enlisted local campuses to join its letter-writing effort for U.S. troops, kicking off the campaign on April 12 — recognized as Youth Service Day — at South Coast Plaza.

Exactly one month later, a Team Kids crew rolled onto the Vista Verde campus in its highly recognizable a ’63 Ford B500. The big navy blue school bus carried nearly all of the letters received so far, and a preliminary count indicated Team Kids had surpassed its goal of 10,000. But there still were more on the way, with Vista Verde teacher Heather Caswell leading her class of second-graders outside to express their gratitude in writing.

Principal Catherine Holmes was there to assist, and IUSD Superintendent Terry Walker submitted a note of his own. And there were other proud grownups on hand, including Sandy Daniels, founder and executive director of Festival of Children, which was a partner in the record-breaking effort; Irvine Deputy Police Chief Mike Hamel; and Christopher B. Clark, chief development officer for Operation Gratitude, which will ensure that the letters reach their intended recipients.

Among the thousands of notes traveling overseas in special care packages will be a single page from 8-year-old Miles Silva, who on Monday thanked a man or woman he may never meet for “fighting for our rights and saving our country.”

“It felt good what we’re doing,” Miles said afterward. “We’re just kids.”