BRADENTON -- After a little coaxing, 8-year-old Matthew Gerardo cautiously walked up to 90-year-old Forrest Kidwell in the cafeteria at Oneco Elementary School and stuck out his hand.
Kidwell, an Army Veteran who is now in a motorized wheelchair, chatted with Gerardo briefly, and asked him for a soda. Kidwell was one of about 10 veterans, who received 100 lap blankets created by Oneco students and community members to take to veterans in need at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System Home in St. Petersburg.
"I use it every day," said Kidwell, who had a sports-themed blanket from last year covering his legs. Kidwell said he was shot by a Japanese sniper, when he was in the war nearly 70 years ago.
For a while, he used a walker to get around, but now he is in a wheelchair. Kidwell has bladder issues and has a tube running to his bladder, so the blanket keeps him warm and helps him cover up the tube, he said.
"I'm just happy to be here," he said, adding students are often surprised to talk to him and hear about his experiences. Kidwell has attended the event at Oneco before.
Annual lap blanket donation
The Manasota Elks club helps put on the event with grants from the national chapter. The club has worked with either Oneco or Daughtrey Elementary for the past seven years and have donated more than 800 lap blankets.
"We always do it around Pearl Harbor Day, so that Pearl Harbor Day means something to the students," said Patrick Gallagher, a member of the Elks clubs and a school district employee. "This also gives the children experience with giving back to those in need."
The blankets were made in one day, in a marathon session that involved students, parents, siblings, school employees and some members of a local Girl Scouts troop. In previous years, the blankets were made as part of before- or after-school programs and were pieced together week after week. The one-day session was a good experience because it drew in more than just students, said Oneco Principal Tina Stancil.
"It was really exciting to see," she said.
Gerardo said it was cool to meet the veterans and that he also enjoyed making the lap blankets. Gerardo focused on using different patterns and colors in his blankets. He said it was important to give back to veterans.
"They survived to help us," Gerardo said.
Before handing out the blankets, students and community members met with the veterans for a cookout in the school's cafeteria. The students served as waiters and waitresses, bringing the veterans drinks and hamburgers and hotdogs with all the different toppings. The students also heard from speakers who talked about the sacrifices veterans made.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.