TOPSHAM, Maine — “Forty-seven, 48, 49, 50. It has 13 stripes, too,” said 8-year-old Elaine Lemieux as she put the finishing touches on a drawing of the American flag.

“The soldiers over there are very important,” she said. “They’re protecting our country.”

With that she folded up a three-page letter and drawing of a decked-out Christmas tree, included a phone card worth 100 minutes and sealed her stars-and-stripes decorated envelope. By Christmas, her letter — along with about 230 others written by Woodside Elementary School students — will arrive in Afghanistan to bring some holiday cheer to U.S. Marines stationed there.

Michele Aronson, Lemieux’s teacher, said she urges her students to write “long and strong,” but otherwise let her students decide the contents of their letters. The themes they came up with were gratitude and sympathy.

“Thank you for protecting our country,” wrote 8-year-old Brandon Durant. “It must be sad to leave your wife and children behind.”

This marks the first year students at Woodside Elementary have penned letters for soldiers en masse, and Principal Richard Dedek said he hopes it won’t be the last.

“We hope this can become a tradition,” he said. “As long as there are soldiers overseas, we want to support them. We’re really proud of the work they do.”

The project originated with the donation of hundreds of calling cards by AT&T. According to Owen Smith, a regional vice president for the communications giant, AT&T has given nearly $8 million worth of calling cards to U.S. military personnel and built 70 calling centers in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. This year, the company gave the Topsham school some 650 calling cards worth more than 13,000 minutes.

“AT&T feels fortunate to be able to give back to the military community and this is one small way we can do this,” said Smith.

The letters written over the past several days by students in Topsham are bound for the Marine Corps’ First Battalion.

“This is so the soldiers can call their families and see how they’re doing,” said 8-year-old Ella Peabody. “If they’re not going to see their families for Christmas, at least they can call them. It makes me feel proud of myself that we’re doing this.”

Dedek said the project was not required but that 15 Woodside classes volunteered.

“Our soldiers who are serving overseas are part of the fabric of this community,” he said. “We want them to know we are thinking of them every day and especially at a time when it’s so hard for families to be apart. Our students recognize the sacrifice and were happy to step forward to let them know.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.

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