Veterans being treated at hospitals in Hickory, Charlotte and Salisbury will receive valentines from Lincoln and Gaston college and Early College High School (ECHS) students this month.
The “Valentines for Vets” project, initiated by Gaston College’s Student Government Association (SGA), began Monday as school officials bounced from classroom to classroom and other campus events in Dallas and Lincolnton, handing out large purple, pink and red paper hearts for students to write messages.
As of Thursday afternoon, more than 300 hearts had been signed, according to Tanisha Williams, coordinator of student activities and special projects.
“This thing turned out to be pretty big,” she said of the project.
Today is the final day for students to fill out a heart.
On Monday, SGA representatives will package the thoughtful notes and mail them to patients at each of the three chosen Veterans Affairs hospitals in the surrounding region.
Not only will the hearts be a Valentine’s gift, but also recognition of National Salute to Veteran Patients week, set for Feb. 10-16.
The SGA opted to carry out the project in order to increase student activity and pay tribute to individuals who have served their country.
Because the school eliminated a temporary position last year — a role that headed veteran students’ activities — SGA didn’t want the often-forgotten section of society to go without special activities targeting them, Williams said.
Darren Stewart, who previously filled the position for Gaston College’s Veteran Students’ Activities but currently works as an interim Veterans Affairs representative, believed the valentines have potential to change a veteran’s entire day or year.
He remembered serving four different overseas tours as a gunnery sergeant for the United States Marine Corps, often feeling lonely and forgotten by those back home until he received special gift and packages from family, friends and even strangers, supporting his service.
“A lot of little things — you find out how much they mean to you (when away from home),” he said.
Stewart went straight into the military following graduation from Bessemer City High School in 1988.
During his 20-year career, he gained 15 honorary medals and became skilled in a variety of mixed martial arts and hand-to-hand combat skills, handling all the logistics and tactical operations for his military unit.
“I’ve mastered all the weapons systems in the infantry company,” he said.
In 2012, he received an associate’s degree from Gaston College in business administration and human resources management followed by a separate degree in business administration last year.
He is currently working on a bachelor’s degree in business management through Belmont Abbey College, taking classes nearly every night of the week, he said.
Stewart visited classrooms on Tuesday at Gaston College’s main campus in Dallas, passing out hearts and explaining to students the project’s significance.
Several students in Kimberly Witherell’s Intro to Business class raised their hands when she asked if anyone knew a veteran, was a veteran or had veterans in their families.
Randi Hatcher, 31, raised her hand for all three questions and said she felt a special connection to the hearts, having served more than two years in the Navy before being medically discharged for a heart condition.
“I know the importance of it,” she said of the Valentine’s project. “It’s a different ballgame when it’s going to someone who’s walked in your shoes.”
Following graduation from Gaston, Hatcher plans to attend UNC-Charlotte and secure a career working with veterans.
For more information on “Valentines for Vets,” contact Tanisha Williams at (704) 922-6312 or Darren Stewart at (704) 922-6229.