FIRESTONE — They circled their camouflaged Humvees like wagons before unloading their personal gear and heading up the American flag-lined driveway to Coal Ridge Middle School.
As the more than 250 soldiers attached to the Idaho National Guard hauled their gear into the school, they were overwhelmed by enthusiastic middle school students wanting to know everything about them, including what was in their duffel bags and how heavy their rifles were.
The soldiers also were greeted with a place to lay their sleeping bags and a common room filled with teachers, school staff, community volunteers and foods of every description.
It wasn’t the welcome they were expecting.
The soldiers are traveling through Colorado on their way to Louisiana, where they will help out those areas devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. All they asked from the St. Vrain Valley School District was an indoor place to bed down.
Superintendent Randy Zila and his staff decided Coal Ridge could handle such a large group.
The staff at the school had two days’ notice that they would be hosting the soldiers. Like a National Guard unit, they quickly mobilized, telling the community what was happening and asking for donations of food to help feed the soldiers when they arrived Thursday night.
Teachers had students write thank-you letters for the soldiers, and more than 50 students stayed after school Thursday to bake cookies, brownies and muffins and to stuff goody bags full of candy and sweets for the troops to take on the road with them.
“Our teacher told us we were the third school district they asked. It’s been an awesome experience for us to thank them for serving our country,” said 13-year-old Christine McCall, a Coal Ridge eighth-grader.
Principal Paul Talafuse manned a large grill outside the school, making hamburgers and bratwursts beginning at around 4 p.m., when the first of five convoys arrived at the school.
Children showed soldiers where they would be sleeping, while others helped cut up brownies, slice cakes and organize the potluck foods delivered by teachers and community members throughout the day.
Numerous businesses and individuals donated money, food or time to the cause, and the soldiers were overwhelmed.
“It’s been really hospitable here,” said Spc. Joseph Ritchey of Boise, Idaho. “The food is excellent, and the people are so generous.”
Master Sgt. Charles Butterfield said, “We were happy to have a place indoors to sleep and take showers, but it is nice to see us supporting our own nation. It’s pretty awesome.”
Ritchey, like many of the soldiers, said he didn’t know what to expect in Louisiana.
“A lot of cleanup and, hopefully, helping people out as much as we can,” he said.
Zila told the St. Vrain Valley Board of Education on Wednesday night that the district was pleased “to provide that kind of assistance and support” to the National Guard.
“They are going to an area that needs a lot of help, but they were called to duty from their own jobs,” he said.
Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-684-5211 or firstname.lastname@example.org.