After four years in the same bed at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, Tom Parks said he welcomes a break from the routine.
All the better if the break involves fried scallops.
That’s what he got Wednesday morning when about two dozen students from JLS Middle School used their Veterans Day holiday to bring gifts and sing to paralyzed vets in the VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s spinal cord injury unit. The students were among more than 100 who helped out at six local organizations as part of a family service day organized by the JLS PTA and the nonprofit Youth Community Services.
Those who volunteered at the VA hospital came prepared. With parents’ help, they had surveyed the patients ahead of time, asking each one what small gift he would most appreciate. One man wanted a disposable camera to take pictures when his granddaughter visited; another just wanted a good, reliable ballpoint pen.
The students weren’t allowed in the rooms Wednesday due to swine flue concerns, so their parents delivered the goodies while the kids crowded outside the door, holding signs and singing, “Happy Veterans Day to You.”
Parks, paralyzed from the waist down in a Christmas Eve car crash decades ago, looked up from his bedside television screen as JLS parent Carrie Manley walked in with a steaming plate of his favorite food — fried scallops.
“I just love scallops,” said the 75-year-old Army veteran, speaking around a thin suction
tube that poked from his mouth.
Before he could dig in, the children grouped outside his room and broke into song. “Happy Veterans Day, dear Mr. Pa-arks,” they chimed.
He smiled, slowly lifted a hand and waved.
“It’s just wonderful,” he said after the kids had moved on to the next room. “I don’t even get to see my own kids very often. It was so nice of them to come.”
A few doors down, 67-year-old Richard Kratt got a pecan pie and his own rendition of the same song.
Kratt, who worked for decades as a manager at the old Peninsula Creamery ice cream plant on Homer Avenue in Palo Alto, is Bay Area chapter president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Unlike Parks, he lives at home in San Jose, but he comes in regularly for treatment. He was paralyzed from the neck down several years ago when he tripped backward over his pet cat.
“I think it’s good for the morale of the fellas to see them,” he said of the visiting middle schoolers.
The children could take home lessons from the experience too, he said. “It’s good for them to realize that people have done things for them. I’m not anything special, but a lot of these guys in here are combat-wounded.”
The suggestion to visit the VA hospital as part of the second annual JLS Family Service Day came from one of the students, 13-year-old Will Goncher.
“I thought it would be fun to go visit them on Veterans Day, bring them a smile,” he said. “It’s kind of a rewarding experience knowing you’re doing something good.”
Ryan DuBois, 12, who baked cookies for the veterans, said he didn’t regret spending his day off from school on community service. It felt more meaningful than sitting at home watching TV, he said.
Megan Swezey Fogarty, founder of Youth Community Services and a PTA member, said the family service day is part of a broader push to get kids interested in volunteering. Most of the project destinations were within walking distance of the campus, she said, making it easy for families to continue their involvement after Veterans Day.
In addition to visiting veterans, students read to kids at the Sojourner Truth Child Development Center, cleaned food at the Downtown Food Closet, tended a garden at Abilities United, recorded local elders’ personal histories at Stevenson House and mulched trees on the JLS campus.
Carrie Manley, Goncher’s mother, said she believes community service can be “like a tonic” for a school community wounded by a cluster of high school student suicides.
“There is such power and importance in this — to feel that you’re needed, to feel first-hand the gift of helping others,” she said.
By Will Oremus
Daily News Staff Writer