Summit Street School kindergarteners hosted an assembly last week to commemorate a month-long project that taught them the meaning of Memorial Day and introduced them to a few new friends.

Kerry Mahoney’s kindergarten class hosts the school’s Memorial Day assembly every year to culminate a full-circle curriculum about the holiday, which includes a learning component, a service project and an integrated arts assignment.

“It teaches them to really show their appreciate toward veterans and how they help keep our country safe, and how to do service projects for our community,” Mahoney said.

This year, she contacted Vermont Paws and Boots, which provides service dogs to veterans and first responders. Four veterans, including founder Michelle LeBlanc, visited Mahoney’s classroom last month and taught about the difference between service and therapy dogs.

From left, Vermont Paws and Boots founder Michelle LeBlanc, Joe and his service dog, Emma; Will and his service dog, Dory; and Summit St. paraprofessional Gavin Mills are honored during the Summit Street annual Memorial Day assembly last Thursday. (Colin Flanders | Essex Reporter)

The veterans also discussed their lives both during and after the military and told the class how their service dogs have helped them.

The students made pieces of art, including painted portraits of the pooches, and dog toys. They then went into the community alongside several other Summit Street classes to change flags at all the veteran headstones in the village cemetery and Fairview cemetery, where Mahoney’s father is buried.

The projects wrapped up with a final video detailing their efforts and a special dance they performed during the assembly.

Mahoney, who’s been at Summit Street for over 14 years, said every project helps in different ways. Last year, her classes made poppy wall hangings and delivered them to veterans at the Burlington-based Starr Farm Nursing Center.

“It’s just great for both friendship and understanding, compassion, empathy,” she said. “That’s why we do it every year.”

The benefits seem to go both ways. “Absolutely amazing what these kids did,” LeBlanc said after the assembly. “That was really cool.”

LeBlanc said it’s humbling to see students so young take pride in being patriotic. She said Mahoney’s annual project is powerful because it shows students Memorial Day goes beyond just picnics and car sales.

“This is because people died so we can what we want to do every day,” she said.

LeBlanc, who’s a corporal in the Vermont State Police, started Vermont Paws after years of working as a K9 handler. Her program serves both veterans and first responders and is about to graduate its third class. She said one of the biggest threats to both veterans and first responders is the stigma that comes with asking for help. That’s slowly changing, she said, but there’s still a long way to go.

“When you start these kids out this young, I hope it follows through with them, because putting a face with a story that you hear, I think, is just a very powerful message,” she said.

One of her students, Joe, attended last Thursday’s assembly alongside his service dog, Emma, a rescue from Texas. Joe is a 33-year retired veteran who covered three conflicts during his service. He said Emma has helped him “open up” his life again, giving him a welcome responsibility and purpose.

“I’m back,” he said.

Students lined up at the end of the assembly to individually thank all veterans in attendance, including one of their own: Gavin Mills, a Summit Street paraprofessional. There was a fair share of wide eyes and excited giggles as students and veterans shook hands, matched only by the joy of giving a quick pat to their trusty sidekicks.

For what is often a somber weekend for many veterans across the country, the assembly seemed to be a happy send-off for LeBlanc and her students.

“This is America,” Joe said after the assembly, smiling.