A group of Pershing Elementary School fourth-graders will soon meet their peers in Heuvelland, Belgium — a virtual exchange for which they can thank the career paths of two Lincoln Southeast High School graduates, World War I and the famous general who commanded American forces in Europe.
What brings these students together from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean starts with the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War.
Then there’s Gen. John J. Pershing, the six-star general, namesake of the small, northeast Lincoln school who taught in Lincoln at the University of Nebraska and earned his law degree here before leading American forces on the western front.
And finally — and probably most importantly — come Jaci Kellison and Jameson DeBose, who became friends in eighth grade and stayed in touch after graduating from Southeast in 2002.
Kellison became an educator who now oversees the social studies curriculum for Lincoln Public Schools. DeBose become a diplomat with the U.S. State Department, a post that has taken him to Africa, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan and Belgium.
As a deputy public affairs officer in the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, DeBose decided the 100-year anniversary of an important moment in history presented an opportunity.
“Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve tried to connect the dots with kids back home,” he said. “It's gratifying whenever I can find opportunities to bring the world to Nebraska and bring Nebraska to the world.”
He didn’t attend Pershing Elementary but remembers it — probably, he said, because of his fascination with military history and the fact that his paternal grandfather served in World War I.
One of the entry points for U.S. troops was near Heuvelland, Belgium. There’s a monument there commemorating the sacrifices of American troops who fought nearby, some of whom are buried in a U.S. cemetery 30 miles east.
“What better way to commemorate (the end of the war) than to bring kids together around this?” DeBose said.
DeBose said he also liked the idea of a project that connects groups outside the two nations’ capitals.
So he called Kellison, and “Heuvelland-Lincoln Connect” was born. It is part of a pilot project through the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs called Virtual Communities Connect.
Students will learn about life during the war in their communities and countries and share what they find with their overseas counterparts Feb. 22. In May, they’ll talk about what it’s like to live in their communities today.
Pershing students took a field trip to the Nebraska State Historical Society, where they learned about Gen. Pershing and what life was like in Nebraska during the war.
Stephanie Fowler, an instructional coach at Pershing, tracked down some wartime artifacts students found meaningful on the field trip: a mess kit and canteen, a wool hat and a pin U.S. soldiers wore on their uniforms. She found a newspaper article from the Omaha Daily Bee announcing the surrender of Germany and another appealing to Omahans to donate clothes to the people of Belgium.
In addition to Gen. Pershing, DeBose said he highlighted the work of Charlotte Kellogg, a Grand Island woman who traveled to Belgium under a program led by Herbert Hoover to research and document life in Belgium under German occupation. Her work is credited with much of the relief efforts for Belgian victims of war, he said.
The Pershing students will send the artifacts they've researched, along with a photo album of their field trip, to the students in Belgium and will await a similar package from the students in Heuvelland. Then they’ll have a virtual face-to-face meeting to talk about the artifacts.
Pershing's Manny Yuma will offer details about the scratchy-wool caps soldiers wore, Micha Smith and Roberto Escutia will describe why that stained metal canteen was so important, and Jameson Raley will talk about how the Huskers almost didn’t have a football team in 1918 because so many of the players were overseas fighting in the war.
“I think the coolest part of this for the kids is a connection to a place they’ve probably never heard of before this project,” Kellison said. “Not just reading about it but receiving something they actually get to touch and feel. I like the idea that they’re getting the box (of artifacts from Belgium) first so they can analyze and make predictions (about the artifacts) ... they kind of get to be the historians in this.”
Learning about what life is like today in Belgium will allow them to see how things change over time, another important part of social studies, she said.
“I’m just really excited,” she said. “I wish all kids in LPS could have this experience.”