PRAIRIE GROVE – Before Patty Klop, a Marine Corps reservist, was sent to Afghanistan in 2009, the Prairie Grove District 46 school community hosted a going away party, gave her cards and kind notes, and loaded her up with donated items to give to the people of Afghanistan.
“It’s stressful to leave your family, home and career,” Lt. Col. Klop said. “But Prairie Grove made it as seamless as possible.”
This week the school district was named one of 30 finalists for the 2013 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award. The school was selected from a pool of 2,899 employers nominated by National Guard and Reserve Service members, according to the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Department of Defense operational committee.
The Freedom award is the Department of Defense’s highest recognition for employers.
“It’s incredible,” Superintendent Lynette Zimmer said. “The district has always been supportive of those serving in the military.”
A national review board will select up to 15 of the 30 finalists for the 2013 Freedom Award later this summer.
“The 2013 Freedom Award finalists demonstrate the type of outstanding support our National Guard and Reserve Service members count on when answering the nation’s call to serve,” ESGR National Chair James Rebholz said in a press release. “These employers recognize the valuable role they play in the lives of our Citizen Warriors; and in supporting these men and women, the finalists have made a critical contribution to our national security.”
Klop, 40, of Wauconda, has been deployed four times since she started working as a physical education teacher at the district in 2003. Each time, administrators, students, and fellow teachers have gone out of their way to show their support.
Before leaving for Afghanistan, the district gave her two weeks of paid time off to visit family and prepare for the deployment. Administrators also had her help pick a long-term substitute to cover her classes, which include teaching physical education for students with disabilities.
Klop served as a mortuary affairs officer in Afghanistan for six months in 2009, a trying job that included retrieving the bodies of military service members who died and returning the remains – expeditiously and respectfully – to the United States. The unit also draped the caskets in American flags and organized ramp ceremonies at stops on the way to Dover Air Force Base.
“We took care of our fallen,” she said. “It was extremely challenging – mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.”
While Klop was in Afghanistan, students and teachers sent letters and cards with messages of support. They collected donated items and sent 10 boxes of good-will gifts to Klop, who gave them to local people in Afghanistan.
“I got tons of mail from the kids, which was great for morale,” she said. “It was really sweet.”
When Klop was in Iraq in for part of 2005 and 2006, district teachers made a point to explain to students the reason for her absence. One class sent her a laminated boy made of out construction paper, dubbed Flat Stanley. Klop took photos with Flat Stanley and sent them back to the school and wrote letters to the students about the character’s adventures.
While stationed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, students wrote letters not only to Klop, but also to the injured soldiers recovering there.
Throughout Klop’s deployments, Zimmer and other school officials kept in touch with school news.
After each deployment, Klop returned to Prairie Grove with new lessons for the students from her experiences. She told students about the soccer team she befriended in Iraq and how grateful the Afghan students were to receive free backpacks.
“She really brings a lot back to the students,” Zimmer said.
ESGR will honor Freedom Award winners at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 26. Since 1996, 175 employers have earned the award. Semifinalists from Illinois included Heil, Heil, Smart & Golee, a property management company in Skokie, and Walgreen Co. in Deerfield.