Sofia C. Bledsoe
For the past two years, the Utility Helicopters Project Office (UHPO) of Program Executive Office (PEO) Aviation has taken several opportunities to share its passion and experiences with the Special Education class at Sparkman High School in Harvest, AL. Pilots have visited the students in their classrooms, talked about their work, showed them the gear they wear, and told stories about what it’s like to be a helicopter pilot.
This time they partnered with Specialized Education Services Inc. (SESi) and took the community outreach program to another level. Eleven students from the Special Education class had an opportunity May 9 to see what an actual helicopter looks like. For many, it was their first time to see an Army helicopter for themselves.
“We’ve been bringing our pilots in for a couple of years to talk to them,” said Greg Gore, Deputy Project Manager in the UHPO. “We’ve left models of the Black Hawk and Lakota in the classroom, so they can see it and remember what they just learned from these pilots.”
The program began with the office interacting with Sparkman Junior High School. Gore’s daughter, Terry, is a student at the school, and he saw a great opportunity to provide the same type of learning experience to the rest of her class as he has done for his daughter.
“What I’ve always noticed is that [the Special Education students] don’t have the same opportunities for some of the field trips and career days like the other students,” Gore said. The idea of bringing the students to see an actual Black Hawk came to mind, “to let them see what they’ve been hearing about in the classroom.”
The principal made an exception for the field trip to happen, according to Amy Alsup, who teaches the class. The school did not typically allow field trips in May. “They’ve seen the models, but they haven’t actually seen the real thing, so they were so excited,” Alsup said.
The students climbed in and out of the two helicopters, asked many questions of the employees from the project office, and posed for photos. Smiles radiated from their faces. They demonstrated a strong association between the high level of technology in the aircraft and the Army.
“This gives us a chance to reach out to our local community and give back to the kids, many of whom have parents who work on Redstone,” Project Manager COL Thomas Todd said. “If nothing more, this gives them a sense of what their parents, their friends or neighbors, what Army Soldiers, and what we actually do for a living every day.”
Todd noted that one of the students had asked him when the Soldiers were coming home from Afghanistan. “That’s a very mature question. So you have to understand that even though they have special needs and limitations, they’re very aware of their surroundings and know much more than what we give them credit for,” Todd said.
The class is among the same group of students from Sparkman High School who have provided several hundred care packages to Soldiers in the field for the past few years. The community outreach event allows the Army and the school to engage with each other and create stronger connections between the students’ experiences and Army life.
“At the end of the day, we’re the ones who are blessed by their presence,” Todd said.
- SOFIA C. BLEDSOE is the Public Affairs Officer for Program Executive Office Aviation, Redstone Arsenal, AL. She holds a B.S. in English from the University of Great Falls and an M.A. in international relations from the University of Oklahoma.