Veterans group names award in Benton’s memory
SOURCE: The Lowell Sun By Kori Tuitt, firstname.lastname@example.org 06/29/2017
WILMINGTON — Former Schools Superintendent Joanne Benton’s memory is intertwined the fabric of the Wilmington community. Her memory will live on in myriad ways, including with an award given out by the people at iPods for Wounded Veterans.
At iPods for Wounds Veterans, their mission is to deliver gifts of electronics, headphones, magazines and letters of encouragement to wounded American soldiers from the wars in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan with the goal of making rehabilitation easier for these injured veterans.
The organization recently went before the School Committee to rename one of its awards to the Joanne Benton Dear Soldier Letter Award. Paul Cardello, chairman of iPods for Wounded Veterans, said Benton was a key person in helping the program to expand.
The program began as an idea back in 2010 when the organization visited a first-grade class at the Woburn Street School. The students wrote 20 letters featuring coloring drawings to send off to veterans.
After approaching Benton to get more schools involved in the program in 2011, Cardello said Benton sent out memos to all the schools in the district.
“She was always a forward thinker, so now we get letters from all over the United States,” Cardello said. “She’s done a lot for the community, worked a lot behind the scenes. When we would go to schools and talk to students, she would rearrange her schedule.”
Benton was also instrumental in helping the organization organize a Barnes & Noble book fair fundraiser, which has become an annual event.
Now the Dear Soldier Letter Program now extends to New Hampshire, Connecticut, South Carolina, Florida and Arizona.
“Her passion was to give the students of Wilmington that knowledge about military service, what it means to join the military and educate them and that’s why she was so heavily involved in this,” Cardello said of Benton.
Kathleen McKenna has been helping to coordinate and vet the letters that come through for the program.
“Really without (Benton) there would be no program,” McKenna said.
“She was able to institute it in Wilmington and from there it’s blown up. The way it touches the soldiers is just unbelievable.”
This year’s winner of the Dear Soldier Letter Award is Mari Robles, who graduated from Wilmington High School this year. Robles first became involved in the Local Heroes Club at Wilmington High lead by Dawn Martell, a science teacher at the school. That club quickly lead to Robles’ involvement in iPods for Wounded Veterans. She has been involved in the parades and has made the day of many veterans through her hospital visits.
“With the care packages, I actually got the chance to deliver them and hand them out to people,” Robles said. “It was just amazing how just giving them this thing brings a smile to their face and how it makes their day. Just knowing how thankful they are, considering what they sacrificed, it’s amazing to see.
“They don’t even have to say, ‘thank you,’ to us because of how much they’ve given to us,” she added.
Robles already knew she would be receiving the Massachusetts Volunteer of the Year Award, but the Dear Soldier Letter Award came as a surprise to her.
“The goal of the club is to help support and raise awareness of the sacrifices that our veterans make,” Martell said. “I have a lot of gratitude toward the students. Most of them are gracious, they want to be there and they want to help in any way they can.”
iPods for Wounded Veterans will be featured in this year’s Fourth of July Parade in Chelmsford and its next trip to Washington, D.C. is set for September. The high school club recently won the Healing Wreath Award for their dedication and the non-profit recently received the VA Golden Eagle Award. As the organization moves forward in its future endeavors, Benton will not be forgotten for her support.
“I think it’s a wonderful tribute to Joanne,” Martell said. “She has really helped the community in so very many ways, and one of the ways is helping the Local Heroes Club and iPods for Wounded Veterans.”