SPRING HILL — Helen Shepard, a Westside Elementary School third-grade teacher, has an all-boy class.
At the beginning of the school year, Shepard and her students shared a bit about themselves to get to know one another. She told the boys about her son, Jesse, 20, who was in Marine Corps boot camp. The boys were fascinated with this, and they soon became pen pals with Jesse.
"They were constantly writing notes of encouragement to him, and he would write back," Shepard said. "Knowing that he had a group of 18 boys that looked up to him cheered him and helped to make the time go by."
During leave after boot camp, Jesse visited the classroom to meet the boys.
"He talked about what it means to be a Marine, what boot camp was like, the importance of being a respectful citizen and what a privilege it is to get an education," Shepard said.
Jesse left to attend school and learn the mechanics of jet engines, where he met fellow Marine Jeremiah Allies, 19.
The students continued corresponding with Jesse. "They seemed more motivated to succeed in school and couldn't wait to see Jesse again," Shepard said.
Jesse, a 2007 Nature Coast Technical High School graduate, said he wanted to be a Marine since childhood. He is heading to South Carolina soon and is an F-18 mechanic.
On a recent leave, Jesse and Allies came back to Hernando County and spent a lot of time at the school.
Allies is from a small Idaho town and has wanted to be a Marine since he was 7. He is from a military family and considers Spring Hill "a big city." Jesse didn't have to twist Allies' arm to go to the school.
"I love kids," Allies said. "That's what I wanted to do when I got here, was to come to a classroom."
"One day they came for a question-and-answer session," Shepard said. "The next day they played a game of baseball with the boys. One day they read to the class and escorted each student to the school library. At the end of the week they came back to participate in our Olympic games."
Those games, the beginning of the class' Olympiad Unit, included battery-operated car races, tower building, making electricity and a dominoes event. These activities were financed by a grant Shepard received from Progress Energy.
Vincent D'Alessandro, 9, is one of the Marines' fans. "I think it's really cool (that the Marines came to visit)," he said.
Jake Toomer, 8, shared why he thinks the men visited. "They came to tell us what it's like to be in the Marines and show us how hard it is to be in the Marines."
"They were in the room every day this week during their week off, volunteering," Shepard said. "They also showed students physical drills of what it was like for them during training. The students also participated in these drills."
Shepard calls the visits and the writing her "Marine Buddy" program. "The two Marines, they've done a lot for the kids," Shepard said. " 'Marine Buddies' has been a success that I hope will grow and continue for many years."
This might work out, as both young men said they are in the Marines for the long haul.
Paulette Lash Ritchie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.