Veterans at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke are in for some big love ahead of Valentine’s Day this year.
An East Longmeadow family with two late loved ones who had strong ties to the beleaguered long-term care facility spearheaded a Valentine card drive, enlisting the help of many classrooms in town’s public schools.
The drive culminated with a gathering of hundreds of Valentines to much fanfare on Friday afternoon outside Mapleshade, Mountain View and Meadow Brook schools.
For the Chrusciel family, it was a labor of love.
“We’ve had such a special connection to the Soldiers’ Home. It’s a painful connection at this point,” said Erin Chrusciel, mother of Tierney, 11, and Elizabeth, 6, who poured their hearts into the project. “These two people were so important in our lives.”
Chrusciel is referring to her father, the late Master Sgt. James Tierney, who died of brain cancer in 2015, and the late Maj. Evan Enders, her grandfather, who died at the Soldiers’ Home last year.
Tierney, of Holyoke, was a member of the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Regional Airport in Westfield, where he served for over 40 years, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Tierney was also a member of the home’s Board of Trustees at the time he fell ill, Chrusciel said. To her daughters, though, he was not a war hero and local official, he was their beloved “Pop-pop.”
Enders, or “great Grandpa,” served in both the U.S. Navy and the Air Force, who ultimately flew B-52 and B-47 aircraft around the world, transporting the wounded during the Korean War. Chrusciel’s daughters spent many an afternoon visiting the Soldiers’ Home, with Tierney playing tunes on the piano for Enders on the last Christmas they were able to spend with him.
The Chrusciels have close connections with the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, a grassroots group formed to advocate for reforms at the facility, where 76 veterans died of coronavirus between March and June last year. One of the members made an overture for volunteers a month or so ago.
“Sue Ellen Panitch, a member of the coalition, approached me and said, ‘I know your girls loved your dad and their great-grandfather very much, so would they be willing to make a few Valentine cards, and maybe ask their friends to help,’” Chrusciel recounted.
But, they did more than that. By this week, Elizabeth’s schoolmates generated more than 200 cards themselves. Add Tierney’s classmates and cards from around the community, the veterans will surely be awash in Valentines.
“We are incredibly excited to take part in this outreach, and we are very grateful to the Chrusciel family for coordinating it,” East Longmeadow Public Schools superintendent Gordon Smith said. “The challenges presented by this global pandemic have been incredible and constant for all of us. Taking part in any outreach or activity that can bring a connection, a smile, and a moment of feeling happy, is something we always want to do.”
The Chrusciel family also placed a large box on their doorstep, and local families added to the pile, including the family of Master Sgt. Scott Blais, 47, an Air Force Reserve citizen airman who died suddenly while on a training mission in Hawaii. The Blais family also lives in East Longmeadow.
Chrusciel, who also has a large extended family with members who call the West Coast home, urged them to send love from across the country. “The response has been really overwhelming, and touching,” she said.
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