Richard Scott had a hard time pinning down exactly what had moved him to tears during the Veterans Week celebration held at Smoky Hill High School on Nov. 6.
Scott isn't unfamiliar with the Cherry Creek School District's annual celebration of all service members. An Army vet with two children enrolled in CCSD, he's attended his share of tributes and ceremonies; he's seen again and again how buildings across Cherry Creek Schools' 108 square miles present their own singular tributes to the service and sacrifice of veterans from every branch, from every generation.
Even so, the assembly held at Smoky Hill – a celebration that featured student speakers from every feeder elementary and middle school, combined musical performances by the high school's orchestra and choir and attendance by CCSD administrators and even City of Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare – had an unexpected effect.
"Over the years, I've gone to different events across the district for Veterans Week. They've ranged from being in the auditorium and watching students singing songs to us having breakfast with the school," Scott said. "This program at Smoky Hill today literally brought me to tears. It was amazing."
Specifically, Scott cited an original essay read by Smoky Hill senior Riley Limbaugh, one that struck a note of unfailing gratitude. In his speech, Limbaugh acknowledged all of those who had "stepped up." He spoke of his own relatives, living and dead, who'd served on foreign shores and in hostile climes. He noted with a sincere tone of pride that "without all of you, this country wouldn't even be half as great as it is … (Our) respect for you doesn't stay confined to a holiday."
Those heartfelt declarations had an impact on Scott. They eloquently summed up the meaning of service, and Limbaugh's essay paid the proper amount of tribute to a population that all too often goes unrecognized.
"He touched on what it is to serve this country, and the sacrifices that every veteran has given. Some of those things are seen, and some are unseen. It's the reality of what every one of us signed up for," Scott said. "A lot of times, we as veterans don't want the spotlight on us. It means something to know that people do care, that what we've sacrificed, what we've given – it matters."
Hundreds of veterans received that same message at ceremonies that took place at every building in the district during the district's eighth annual Veterans Week celebration, which officially ran from Nov. 5 to Nov. 9. As in past years, the celebration saw every individual school organizing a unique veterans tribute. Schools like Sky Vista Middle and Altitude Elementary hosted outdoor parades; Overland mounted its annual assembly that combined stirring addresses, and others opted for shared meals that saw students, teachers, staff and administrators breaking bread with vets from the community. Schools welcomed speakers drawn directly from their communities, service members past and present who'd served in every branch of the military in every conflict since World War II. Students from elementary to high school invited relatives to share their experiences with their peers, and dignitaries from the district and from municipalities across the metro area spread out across CCSD to pay their respect.
No matter the specific program of events, every celebration had a similar purpose.
"This is the right thing to do," said CCSD Superintendent Scott Siegfried, adding that the eighth annual event offered an important bridge between the military and CCSD students. "The first-person learning that our kids receive about sacrificing for the greater good brings their classroom history lessons to life. Talking to our veterans, shaking their hands – that makes it real."
What's more, Siegfried added that the district's commitment to honoring its community heroes goes beyond Veterans Week itself. All year long, students and teachers are engaged in complementary projects and field trips like the annual excursion to the Center for American Values in Pueblo. In addition to the curriculum in social studies, history and civics classrooms, these immersive experiences help add context to the Veterans Week ceremonies.
"Our work goes deeper than this amazing week of celebrations," Siegfried said. "We want to create these connections every day of the school year, and continue to spread the message that it's our people who make us great."
At some ceremonies, those kinds of connections were the strongest between family members. During Overland High School's celebration on Nov. 5, retired Army Sgt. Buck Bartolik mingled with other veterans and received stirring tributes, even as his son, Overland student Gordon Bartolik, looked on. It was the first time that father and son had attended a CCSD Veterans Week celebration together, and the experience had a special impact for both.
"Any time I get to spend time with my son is a good time. If I'm giving him information about my time in the military, it's extra special," Buck Bartolik said. "The overriding message from me is that no one should be afraid to serve their country."
Gordon Bartolik, meanwhile, treasured the opportunity to see the contributions of his father honored by the Overland community.
"It's special to see them celebrate my dad," he said simply.
At that ceremony, the Bartoliks formally became part of a very specific family, one that gathers annually at every single district building. Buck Bartolik is already part of a family of veterans, a group that spans the nation and, indeed, the globe. Now, he and his son have been inaugurated into the tribe of Cherry Creek School District veterans and family members, a group that's honored in myriad ways for their service, sacrifice and commitment to country.
Richard Scott has been a part of that specific clan for years, and the ceremony at Smoky Hill again illustrated its value and importance.
"I call it 'my school district.' To know that they care, from our senior leaders all the way down to the youngest students … I love it," Scott said. "This is family. Thank you Cherry Creek Schools for taking this time. We truly appreciate it, every single one of us."