Steve Labenz gives students the opportunity to visit GR Veterans Home


History teacher Steve Labenz decided this year to stray away from taking his AP United States History class to Greenfield Village. Instead, Labenz chose to take all of his history students, including the block classes, to visit the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.

In 2012, there was a total of 634,000 veterans in Michigan alone. As of 2014, there were 21.8 million veterans nationwide. At school, we read about the wars and watch videos of the armed forces stationed in foreign countries. On the news now, it seems all we hear about is the tragedies across the world that the U.S. is involved in. Many people never stop to think about those who lived through these tragedies, in the Middle East or elsewhere, and that these veterans are our next door neighbors.

“Even though I think that Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum are terrific and chock full of cool history,” Labenz said, “I thought it would be even better to do something beneficial for a deserving group right here in Grand Rapids.”

This “group” that Labenz is speaking of are local veterans from right in our city. The home helps provide medical assistance that is needed for some of the veterans in our area. The home also has musical performances and games for the patients in the home. One thing that they can never have enough of, however, is volunteers.

“I enjoyed the field trip because it allowed us to help out the veterans campus and show respect to the veterans by cleaning the cemetery for their Memorial Day service,” sophomore Jackie Mclaughlin said.

The sophomores and select freshmen that were able to go on the field trip to the veterans made an immense difference to the grounds at the home.

“The facility houses hundreds of vets on just under 100 acres,” Labenz said, “but there are full-time time grounds people, so I am glad we could play a small part in getting the cemetery ready for their upcoming Memorial Day celebration.”

Labenz is very passionate about not only history, but genuinely caring for others, whether students or those who have served our country.

“I drive by their cemetery off I-96 quite often,” Labenz said, “and I think of all those people who gave their lives for our country and that is a sobering thought. I just happened to be born in between wars that we fought, but [veterans] left everything they had and paid the ultimate price, so I think that’s always a good reminder when we have so, so much in this world to remember these people.”

The field trip was an exceptional experience for everyone that went on it. Though it was not the peaceful day off for wandering through Greenfield Village, like in the past, it provided a different kind of learning experience that simply can not be learned in a classroom at school.

“I think Greenfield Village would have been a lot of fun and I was a little disappointed that our class didn’t go,” Jackie said, “but the veterans home had a larger impact on students and residents so I think it had more value than the Greenfield Village trip would have. I learned about the history of the veterans home and more about certain aspects from the Vietnam War from the residents who spoke to us about their war experience.”

Other than putting in some sweat cleaning up the grounds, students got the opportunity to speak with some of the veterans in the home. Being able to talk to those that have served our country gives everyone a better respect for what they have been through.

“I learned that one of the veterans from the Vietnam War was in charge of writing letters home to families when their son or other relative had fallen,” Jackie said. “We also learned about the differences between World War II veterans and Vietnam veterans after they return home and the different struggles between them.”

Because of the positive experience with the field trip to Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, Labenz hopes to do this again, and not necessarily for just the history kids, but the entire school.

“I would like to get about 500 students out there and just swarm over the whole place and get the jobs done that their staff just can’t get to,” Labenz said. “Can you imagine? Maybe we can do an entire FHC community service day next spring.”