Behind the scenes: Making the holiday season special for veterans

Catherine Miller, a child and youth program assistant with the 509th Force Support Squadron Susie Skelton Child Development Center (CDC), sit with her students prior to story time at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Dec. 22, 2015. In 2010, Miller began a drive to help veterans spending the holiday season alone. This year, 13 different classrooms at the CDC “adopted” a veteran by collecting items and making them cards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jazmin Smith)

Catherine Miller, a child and youth program assistant with the 509th Force Support Squadron Susie Skelton Child Development Center (CDC), sits with her students prior to story time at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Dec. 22, 2015. In 2010, Miller began a drive to help veterans spending the holiday season alone. This year, 13 different classrooms at the CDC “adopted” a veteran by collecting items and making them cards. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jazmin Smith)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Bells ring as spare change is dropped into a small, red kettle. Gifts of different shapes and sizes, which will soon brighten a child's holiday, are placed under the angel tree. Random acts of kindness can be seen all around. It's the time of year when many people are filled with a desire to serve others.

In the military, service members are always encouraged to find a mentor, someone they hope to one day emulate. For several children at the Susie Skelton Child Development Center (CDC) at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., that calling falls to Catherine Miller, a child and youth program assistant with the 509th Force Support Squadron.

During the winter of 2010, Miller organized a drive to spread a little holiday cheer to veterans living at the Missouri Veterans Home in Warrensburg, Mo.

"It started when my husband retired from the Air Force and started working at the Missouri Veterans Home as a certified nursing assistant," said Miller. "He would come home and tell me how some of the residents didn't have any visitors and had little, if anything, and it would break my heart." 

She started volunteering to visit at the veterans' home. Miller would later speak with the director of the CDC, and with the support of the staff, the drive began at the CDC.

"She is a dedicated and caring employee," said Christopher Nordvall, the CDC director for the 509th Force Support Squadron. "The 'Adopt-A-Vet' drive is just another expression of her generous and benevolent nature that she brings to the classroom every day." 

Five years later, the "Adopt-A-Vet" program has expanded. When entering one of many classrooms, the walls are lined with the artwork of growing artists, books rest upon the shelves, and children dance around while teachers sing fun songs. The only thing slightly amiss would be the box set near the door, which, following the Thanksgiving holiday, had been decorated by the children. A total of 13 classrooms had similar containers this year.

"We explain that we are collecting for a veteran that doesn't have family coming to visit, and we want them to have a good Christmas like we will have," said Miller. "We let them help decorate and wrap the box that items will be collected in." 

Near the drop-off boxes were lists comprised of items to bring a smile to the senior citizens spending the holiday alone. Miller and her little elves gathered items ranging from coloring books for adults and sports team items to slipper shoes and blankets.

Donated items weren't the only gifts for the veterans; teachers also worked with their students to make artwork. They spent a day or two on making crafts and a card for the veteran they adopted.

By getting the children involved, parents and teachers alike had the opportunity to impart a lesson of generosity. Although the concepts may not be easily grasped by the younger children, the teachers try to explain the importance of the drive and what they're contributing to.

Miller doesn't stop there. Besides the holiday season, she also coordinates for other occasions.

"I try to collect items through the year for these veterans on their birthdays, and try to send them something on other holidays," said Miller.

Miller hopes others will hear her story and more units around base might "adopt" a veteran or give their time and visit or read with them.

For more information on how to donate or volunteer, contact Latisha Koetting, the supervisor of volunteer services for the Missouri Veterans Home, at 660-429-4661.