Don Zolkiwsky, purple heart recipient, visits Steam4kidz at Cypress Creek Elementary.
“The most interesting thing I did over there is go to an orphanage,” Don Zolkiwsky recalled.
Despite all the horrors of the war, the impact of an orphaned boy named Max stands out to Zolkiwsky from the Vietnam War. Max wore only one pair of brown shorts and a red t-shirt, no shoes, while he partnered with the U.S. Army as a spy. He pre-searched villages for enemies and reported to the Army in exchange for food.
Zolkiwsky offered Max new clothes and shoes, but Max refused in favor of keeping what he already had. It took a piece of candy for Zolkiwsky and Max to build a friendship. The only thing Zolkiwsky said is that Max was alone when he left, but because Max was a determined boy, he survived.
This story of an orphaned boy helped students from Cypress Creek Elementary connect with Zolkiwsky as he recalled his experiences of the Vietnam War on Feb. 26. Zolkiwsky asked the students if they could imagine this kind of loneliness and survival tactic. He explained sharing the story and photo of an orphaned boy informs young ones that the situation is simply possible.
The students made letters and crafts which they presented to him and his wife, Deena, before the speech. Zolkiwsky engaged the students with memorabilia from the war time. Teacher Michelle Phelan said she believes it is crucial to connect with our veterans first-hand.
“We are not reading about it in a book," Phelan said. "It’s still here. We are so far removed from that level of respect that if they can see it first hand,‘Wow, you went through that,' it’s real.”
The class learned about respect and honor for the visit, which correlated well with the recent lessons on etiquette. The students demonstrated the lessons by clapping and standing in ovation as Zolkiwsky entered the room, escorting him to his seat and serving him a treat. They demonstrated their active listening during the presentation by asking detailed questions.
One student, Leia, approached Zolkiwsky after the presentation to personally thank him for his service. Many students stated they are grateful for the sacrifices military members have made and understood that veterans make it possible for them to be here safe.
“It’s not so much as giving recognition to veterans as much as recognizing the country didn’t get this way unless people did something,” Zolkiwsky said.
He explained people may recognize their freedoms, but a lot can be done to help younger generations understand and appreciate those freedoms.
“Freedom is not free," Zolkiwsky said.
Zolkiwsky, who lives in New Jersey, said he feels lucky to have survived the war. His war experience provides an opportunity to tell a story with a happy ending to impact the students. In visiting sixth to eight grade classrooms, he said he is able to make a deep impression, but that he has to choose the details of the war carefully.
“I think the country needs more this.” Zolkiwsky said.