It's a chance that may never come again for students at Pleasant Valley Middle School — spending two days escorting World War II veterans to the national WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., and learning firsthand about the war that turned back Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Fourteen youths from area schools, led by a core group at Pleasant Valley, have been raising funds through the summer and early school year to try to pay their way as "guardians" on an Honor Flight.
The Honor Flight program takes aging WWII veterans to see the memorial that was built in 2004 to honor them in 2004. The program's honorary adviser and national spokesman is former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who lost the use of his right arm in the war.
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The youngest WWII veterans are now in their 80s.
Their numbers have dwindled from 16 million to about 3 million and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that another 1,100 pass away each day.
Taking an Honor Flight would be more of a working trip than a vacation for the students, said Meg Plotner, a teacher at Pleasant Valley who's helping organize the effort.
On an Honor Flight, the guardians provide constant company and assistance to the veterans, many of whom are in frail health, she said.
The students say they're ready to serve. And they want to use their two days in close company with the veterans to hear the story of WWII from those who actually fought it, before they're all gone.
"We can never really repay the veterans for their service," said Nora Lechner, 14. But helping them see the memorial for themselves would be a start, she said.
"The important thing is to be there for these veterans and help them on this trip," she said. "Being able to experience that with somebody would be an awesome experience."
"I'm honored they asked me to be a guardian," added Martie Mullen, 13. "It's a very important thing, important to the veterans they get to go and see it (the memorial)."
The students are young and a little hazy on details of the war, which they're just starting to study in earnest. But they do recognize that Hitler and his allies were bent on world conquest and that their lives would be very different if the United States and its allies hadn't triumphed.
"I think of how much these veterans had to do and how it affects where we are now in America," said Rebecca Dominick, 13. "We had to lose a lot of people."
The students have already held several car washes and bake sales and a garage sale to try to raise the $7,500 they estimate it will take for the entire group to go on an honor flight. They sell smoothies to staff and students before and after school to bring in a few dollars.
"These kids have done all this with a smile," said paraeducator Sharon Hazelwood.
But raising money at Pleasant Valley is a challenge, to say the least.
The north Wichita school is in a working-class neighborhood and one of the poorest schools in the district. More than eight out of 10 students there are considered low-income.
So far, the teens have raised about $2,500, putting them about a third of the way to their goal, Plotner said.
They have two major fund-raisers coming up — a dinner and silent auction Friday and a dodgeball tournament Sept. 18, that they hope will give a substantial boost to their effort.
The work the students have put in — and the work they plan to do — shows their character, said Army National Guard Maj. Andy Trager, an Iraq War veteran who heads the school's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
"Some of the time the community doesn't give the middle school kids enough recognition," Trager said.