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Chicago veterans get a special message via a visit from schoolchildren armed with chalk and love

Brayden Roozeboom, from Southwest Chicago Christian School, makes a chalk drawing of a flag acknowledging Veterans Day. (Terrence Antonio James/ Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The light breeze made the fall leaves on the ground twirl as a group of senior veterans gathered in front of their living facility. Don was wearing his Air Force hat, holding a small American flag in one hand and an old portrait of when he served in the other.

Donald Brann is nearing 90, and like many of his fellow veterans at the care facility, suffers from some form of dementia and memory loss.

Despite it all, he smiled when a group of children came running from the school across the street on Thursday afternoon, the day before Veterans Day. The fourth and fifth graders from Southwest Chicago Christian School paid a visit to the veterans to celebrate their life and honor them for their service by writing and drawing messages with chalk on the sidewalk at Grace Point Place, an assisted living facility in Oak Lawn.

Maureen Portal smiled as she sat next to her husband Timothy Portal, an Army veteran now 75 years old suffering from Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia. The two have been married nearly 60 years.

“Can you believe it’s been that long?” she asked her husband, who has been living at the facility for five years. And though he sleeps most of the day now, when Max Pettinga, one of the students, began drawing a flag in front of the Portals, Timothy watched carefully.

“It’s very special and nice that they’re doing this,” Maureen said. “It’s good for him (Timothy) to be out and see other people instead of staying in his room, and for the kids, it’s a learning experience.”

The two have three grandchildren, and though they love their grandfather, it’s been difficult and painful to visit him as his illness progresses, Maureen said. So the visit from the students warms her heart.

Though the school is close to the facility, it was just a month ago when the after school service program was established with the purpose of educating the children, and providing stimulating and purposeful activities for the residents, said Shannon Dahlman, community relations director for Grace Point Place.

Every week, the group of students spends an hour at the facility interacting with the seniors and learning from each other. Staff at Grace Point Place created an education program for the students in which they taught them about the veterans’ various illnesses, and guided the students on how to interact with residents, Dahlman said.

The facility is home to five veterans, all seniors.

Sandra McAlpine, 69, was in the Army. She said she feels proud to have served her country: “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Seeing the students celebrate her made her happy, she said.

Despite their memory problems, many of the veterans often share stories of the time they served, and showcase their hats and jackets, said Dahlman. “Our seniors are very proud to have served our country, and it will warm their hearts to see the children’s messages of gratitude for their service and patriotism.”

Brayden Roozeboom, a fourth grader, said that the seniors remind him of his grandparents.

“It’s really nice to be here so they remember what they did and what they served for.”

His grandparents are also veterans, Roozeboom said as he drew a big flag.

Bethany Orozzo, another fourth grader, said she likes “hanging out with the seniors because they’re nice.”

“It’s important to honor them because they fought in the war,” she added.

The facility focuses on serving people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia by providing them with physical and cognitive activities to keep them engaged and live the best life possible, added Dahlman.

The program with the students motivates and stimulates the residents physically and cognitively.

”It creates a lot of joy to have that purpose and build that self-confidence — and they’re able to reminisce (about) what it was like when they were younger,” Dahlman said.

On Friday evening, the veterans will be honored with a pinning ceremony at the facility, to which the other residents there will be invited.


© 2022 Chicago Tribune

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