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Roanoke Avenue students craft nearly 500 Valentine’s Day cards for 106th Rescue Wing service members

Air National Guard service members based in Westhampton Beach will receive special messages next month — courtesy of Roanoke Avenue Elementary School students.

Christopher Clay, a fireman at the 106th Rescue Wing, a New York Air National Guard unit, met with Roanoke Avenue Elementary School’s eight student council members Monday to pick up nearly 500 Valentine’s Day cards crafted by students. The cards will be delivered to all full-time members during the first weekend in March. 

The fourth-graders were encouraged to ask questions to Mr. Clay, who recently returned from a six-month deployment in Jordan. He has been stationed at the Westhampton Beach base for roughly 13 years and is now on leave, he said. The Holbrook native was joined by his wife, Ashley, and kids, 2-year-old Harrison and 8-month-old Maxwell.  

“It’s nice to know we have people who write us letters, who are thinking about us,” he told the students. 

As a firefighter, Mr. Clay said, he services all buildings on base, which includes in-flight emergencies.

The students and teachers pose with Mr. Clay Monday. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

“If they’re having problems with their landing gear, engine failure, smoke in the cockpit — we respond to all types of in-flight emergencies,” said Mr. Clay, who also works as a Suffolk County police officer in the 7th Precinct.

The Q&A period with students, Mr. Clay said, helps to destigmatize service members and their jobs.

“Them seeing us out and about, and actually be able to reach out and touch us, because we have been at that base for so long, and a lot of people don’t know it’s there — I think that’s the biggest thing,” Mr. Clay said. “A lot of these kids, they’re going to school with people’s whose brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents that are at that base. We’re just part of the community.”

The event was organized last year by the student council, with help from English as a New Language teacher Nicole Fallon-Herbst and fourth-grade teacher Kelly Dillon, who runs the student council.

“They were really the liaisons,” Ms. Fallon-Herbst said of the council. “They helped come up with the ideas and we kind of showed them that even though they’re nine, they can do so much more in this community.” 

Last week, Mr. Clay celebrated his homecoming with family and friends. Shortly after, longtime friend Ms. Fallon-Herbst invited Mr. Clay into the classroom to discuss his time abroad. 

Mr. Clay receives the box with the Valentine’s Day cards. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Ms. Dillon — who defined Roanoke as “the little school with the big heart” — said the student council has hosted and planned similar fundraisers throughout the year. The group donated hundreds of socks to Maryhaven Center of Hope in October and are currently working with Riverhead Beverage to recycle weekly. All proceeds go toward fighting wildlife fires in Australia.

“This student council, especially, has been really hard at work for people in our community,” Ms. Dillon said, and other countries.

The event teaches students that there are alternative ways to benefit those in need, and works in place of the traditional Valentine’s Day exchange of cards and candy at school, Ms. Fallon-Herbst said.

“We’re trying to build up a community within our small community,” she said. “Especially during tough times … we kind of wanted to teach them a way to send smiles, and that sometimes people need it because they go away for months at a time without their family.”