St. Mary School teacher receives high honour

Jillian Lawson shows her Spirit of Military Families Coin to one of her Grade 4/5 students at St. Mary School on June 13, 2017. Lisa Goudy/Times-Herald

Jillian Lawson was in for a surprise at Tuesday’s morning assembly at St. Mary School.

The Grade 4/5 teacher was awarded the Spirit of Military Families Coin, the highest civilian award for outstanding support to military families through the Moose Jaw Military Family Resource Centre (MFRC).

“It is absolutely fabulous,” she said after receiving the award. “I’m still blown away.”

She received the award primarily for her letter writing campaign with her 23 students. Christmas 2015, her brother-in-law Jack was deployed for the first time. Lawson wanted to write him a letter and thought her class might like to do so as well.

“The response we got from people who were deployed on that ship who wrote back to us – because everyone wrote back to us – was amazing,” said Lawson. “So I thought, ‘I need to do this again.’”

Christmas 2016, her class once again sent letters and goodies to military members in Kabul. It was a lucky coincidence that their boxes reached former St. Mary School student Scott Smith.

The letter writing project also netted Lawson and her students the Lois Boyle “Mother of the Snowbirds” Award from 15 Wing Fellowship earlier this year.

Lawson said she feels the venture connects students with the military and the soldiers appreciate hearing from kids that their work is appreciated.

“It’s kind of like this full circle thing that I never thought would actually happen,” she said. “I was just trying to get my kids to write a letter.”

Lawson’s letter writing initiative caught the attention of the Moose Jaw MFRC when a few different Canadian Armed Forces spouses learned of her project and nominated her for the award, said Regan Gorski, executive director of the Moose Jaw MFRC.

Gorski said in his 19 years with the Moose Jaw MFRC, fewer than 10 Spirit of Military Families Coin awards have been presented.

“They’re not passed out lightly. So it really is a significant achievement for not just Ms. Lawson but for her entire class and her entire school division,” he said. “She’s had various different initiatives from letter writing campaign to various other support initiatives that have been over and above what you would expect from any teacher, quite honestly.”

Military members also appreciate the letters, he continued, especially given that the nature of military life requires members to spend a significant amount of time away from families.

“It’s very stressful on the family unit and these kinds of programs and initiatives and getting the community behind them just makes a world of difference,” said Gorski. “It really makes the families feel like they’re not alone when they’re away from family.”

Having kids involved makes the project that much more special.

“I think as adults we can comprehend on a rational level as to what’s going on but with kids, it’s their hearts,” said Gorski. “It’s so genuine and you can see how excited they were to be a part of the projects and I think it plants a seed … They’ll be the adults and leaders 10 years from now and hopefully that’s something that they remember and take with them.”

Lawson’s time in Moose Jaw is coming to an end. After three years in the city, her husband has been posted to Trenton, Ont., which is where the couple will move on July 7. She said while both of their families live in Ottawa, her experience with St. Mary School and the city of Moose Jaw has been positive.

“I’m already getting emotional and then this (award) happens. This is just above and beyond what I expected would happen from what I thought was a simple project in class,” said Lawson.

As for the letter writing, that is something she plans on doing every year with her students.

“It’s free to send to deployed military personnel,” said Lawson. “Not only is it easy to do, it costs you nothing. So I will for sure be doing this again.”