Herrick Middle School students honor veterans with Poppy Project

Vets visit the Downers Grove school to deliver poppy pins

Herrick Middle School students spend time Tuesday, May 23, 2023, with Downers Grove VFW Century Post 503 member Ray Adams, a Vietnam veteran. The students made clay poppies to honor veterans for Memorial Day. Adams brought poppy pins to the students during his visit. (Courtesy Herrick Middle School)

When an art teacher in Downers Grove Grade School District 58 learned of the passing of community member and veteran Paul Kludac, she felt compelled to do something to honor the memory of her high school friend.

By enlisting the help of her seventh grade students at Herrick Middle School, Elizabeth Lukes was able to do just that.

For a service project, Lukes’ class recently designed and created dozens of ceramic poppies that are being presented to local veterans this weekend in honor of Memorial Day.

“Clay is a typical part of the seventh grade curriculum and we had actually already done a clay project so the kids were familiar with the tools and techniques,” Lukes said. “It was just so neat to see their passion for this project. The kids took it so seriously and were very concerned about the craftsmanship. I said, ‘Anything you do is going to be meaningful.’ And the poppies ended up coming out so beautiful. The kids were so proud of how they turned out.”

Students also wrote handwritten letters to veterans to accompany the poppies.

“They thanked them for their service and some even wrote personal stories about grandparents or siblings who were in the service,” Lukes said. “It was neat to read the letters. They were very heartfelt.”

Lukes asked on a local community Facebook page if anyone had connections to the American Legion and was put in touch with Jennifer Snyder, a member of the Lockport American Legion and auxiliary member of VFW Century Post 503 of Downers Grove. Her husband, William Snyder, who served in the Army for 24 years before retiring, is the commander at VFW Post 503.

Jennifer Snyder was excited about the initiative.

“Elizabeth said she was teaching the students about the meaning of Memorial Day and making clay poppies and that the students would like to gift them to local area veterans,” Snyder said. “I knew right away that I wanted to get involved and help distribute these. From there, the project evolved and Elizabeth asked if we could have a veteran come in and talk to the students.”

Snyder got in touch with Downers Grove VFW Post member Ray Adams, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marines, and on Tuesday, the pair visited the Herrick students.

“Ray is always eager to talk to people and to help them understand what the VFW is and how people can assist veterans,” Snyder said. “I felt he was a great fit to come in and talk to the students and for the students to present to him The Poppy Project in person.”

In turn, Snyder and Adams surprised the class with traditional poppy pins.

The Downers Grove VFW offers many outreach programs to help veterans and their family members, Snyder said.

“A lot of our volunteerism is simply being out in the community and reminding people just how important our veterans are,” she said. “The Herrick Middle School Poppy Project gave us the perfect opportunity to do that.”

Lukes hopes to continue the initiative with future students.

“It was amazing to see the kids today listening to Ray and asking questions,” she said. “It was really quite moving. I hope it’s a moment they won’t forget. I know it’s one I won’t forget.”

Kludac, 43, of Lockport, passed away April 19. The 1997 graduate of Downers Grove South High School was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business when he got called to active duty in the Marines. After serving in Iraq, he was honorably discharged as a corporal, according to his obituary.

He was the owner and founder of the Detail Kings, a car detailing service that was established in his mom’s garage and expanded to two locations in Downers Grove. He also was a Realtor for Platinum Partners Realtors in Downers Grove.

“When he passed away, I was thinking what can I do to honor my friend and do a little bit more to bring awareness to the students about our veterans and the importance of Memorial Day and Labor Day,” Lukes said. “I was talking about it with my husband and said, ‘’We should make poppies.’ Then I asked the principal if it was a good idea and he said absolutely so it all evolved quickly.”

The Downers Grove VFW always welcomes new applications, Snyder said. To become a VFW member, a veteran must have served in a foreign war, but those who have family members who served in a foreign war are eligible to become Auxiliary members. For information, email jcdt@sbcglobal.net or individuals can stop by the Downers Grove VFW Post, 5101 Belmont Road.