Last summer, La Center School District Superintendent Mark Mansell had a little time to himself to think.
Mansell rode his bicycle from Portland, OR to Portland, ME to raise money and awareness for Leader Dogs for the Blind, a program supported by Lions Clubs all over the world. The 3,500-mile trip over 52 days included many long hours during which Mansell was alone with his thoughts while riding a bicycle that pulled a trailer that featured a flag of the United States.
As Mansell rode through Mandan, ND – a small town near Bismarck – he encountered a Fourth of July parade. With the commitment of appearances at nearly every stop along his trip that necessitated that he keep a tight schedule, Mansell thought he would just join the parade rather than wait. After all, his own flag allowed him to fit right into the spirit of the celebration.
“It made me stop and think about the importance of the flag,’’ said Mansell, a member of the La Center Lions.
Mansell had previously been told about a Lions Club program called Flags for First Graders and his knowledge of that program, coupled with his summer epiphany in North Dakota, led him to lead a charge to bring American flags to first graders in the Pacific Northwest.
“The idea is to give every first grader their own flag in a stand with some information about the flag so they begin to understand the symbolism of the flag, what it means and what people have sacrificed to defend it,’’ Mansell said.
In September, Mansell was at a regular meeting of superintendents of school districts in Southwest Washington and he shared information about the Flags for First Graders program with his fellow superintendents and asked if they would get involved in his effort to bring it to the area.
“I shared it with the superintendents and said I would like to do this – who’s in?’’ Mansell said. “I got a very positive response.’’
Among North Clark County school districts, superintendents from the Hockinson, Ridgefield, Woodland and Green Mountain districts all jumped in to join Mansell’s effort, which will also include his own district in La Center. Dr. Twyla Barnes from ESD 112 also got involved and provided her support.
As a result of the collaborative effort, about 6,000 first grade students from 75 schools in the region will receive the gift of a flag with a stand and a brochure that provides information about the American flag during the week of May 20.
“It’s amazing the impact that small things can have in the lives of kids,’’ Mansell said. “That’s the gift of the teaching experience. We have such a tremendous opportunity with our young kids to teach them something as powerful as patriotism.’’
The weekend of May 11-12, Mansell joined with other Lions from the area to gather for a workday at ABC Plastics in Vancouver, owned by Hazel Dell Lions Club member Doug Hall. Hall rallied support from area business leaders who supplied materials and made other contributions to the effort. The flag gift packets were packaged individually for each participating school and will be shipped out the week of May 13 for distribution the following week.
“Principals and teachers at each school are going to hand them out to kids,’’ Mansell said. “The simple idea of giving a kid a gift has truly turned into something terrific.’’
Mansell said the timing of the distribution of the flags wasn’t by accident. He wanted it to coincide with Memorial Day, which takes place May 27.
“One of the things that bothered me, personally, as I have gotten older is that many people spend Memorial Day thinking about the first long weekend of the summer vacation season,’’ he said. “As a country, we’ve lost sight of the idea that people have given their lives in service to their country to protect the freedom that we enjoy. That’s the true reason for Memorial Day.
“I thought, what better way to introduce the flag to a young person than to link it to Memorial Day,’’ Mansell said. “If we give young people a flag, it can make a world of difference as they grow up. You never quite know the impact it can have in their lives.’’