History students make an impact for Memorial Day with the help of Steve Labenz


A few years ago, AP U.S. History teacher Steve Labenz started a beloved tradition at FHC that consists of taking his students to visit a veterans’ home in downtown Grand Rapids. As a history teacher, Labenz wanted a way to connect the information and hardships from textbooks with the faces of people who experienced those things. He viewed the opportunity as a chance for students to honor and serve those who served their country through physical labor like yard work and cleaning tombstones.

“I always drive by [the veterans’ home] and think that there are people there who never really had a chance to get any kind of life, and it’s important to keep the thankful spirit alive,” Labenz said.  “A couple years ago, I thought it would be nice if we could go because they would probably need the help. I contacted them last year, and they only have two groundskeepers for all 80 acres. They were very happy to have us come last year. Last year, we had about 100 people, and I wanted to get even more [this year]. Because of testing and whatnot [though], we had about 80 kids— some of Ms. Styles’s kids and [some of] mine. I actually thought we got more work done this year; the kids worked really, really hard.”

Sophomore Jordyn Carlson, one of the 80 students volunteering on this field trip, made the most of her experience and gained a lot. Through her new appreciation for the veterans’ home and a new respect for all those who serve our country, she developed a fresh perspective. A little quirk she noticed in the graveyard was a fascinating new discovering that played a role in changing her outlook.

“I saw a lot of pennies on gravestones, and I was curious so I asked [what the reason for that was],” Jordyn said. “The significance behind the pennies was showing your respect for the person; a nickel represents that you went to boot camp with them; a dime represents that you served in the war with them. I never knew that before, so I found that super fascinating. It amazed me to see how many people have served from Michigan.”

This was an eye-opening trip for students, put in place to help students realize the impact of spending one afternoon being an advocate for others and paying respect to their country. The tasks were small, but the impact was great, even considering how little time was spent at the veterans’ home.

“We split up, and some people raked leaves and were just cleaning up the outside of the building,” Jordyn said. “Then, a few of us were just picking up sticks so that it would be easier for the lawn to be mowed. After that, we all gathered and went to the cemetery to make sure it was nice and clean– lots of raking and cleaning leaves.”

Labenz was pleasantly surprised at the amount of work that was accomplished, even though the student numbers were lower than we had expected them to be. There was a lot of yard work to be done, but they made do and exceeded their expectations about what they could get done. 

“Basically, we just wanted to clean up because Memorial Day is coming up,” Labenz said. “The Boy Scouts will come afterward and put a flag on each headstone. There are around 4,000 headstones, so we wanted to clean up [before the Boy Scouts came]. It was helpful to clean up.”

Although the day was filled with constant yard work, the trip didn’t even feel difficult because of the camaraderie between the classmates while they volunteered. The students made a lot of memories, and overall, the trip was quite enjoyable.

“There was a veteran who came and spoke to our class, and he had been living there for four years,” Jordyn said. “He didn’t really say much, but he really enjoys [living there] with his dog. He is very proud of the people serving our country and is very humble about it.”

His story was quaint and over a short period of time. But during the time that he was speaking, many students were deeply touched, filled with respect for all of the hardships he had endured to ensure freedom for the U.S. The experience opened the students’ eyes to a whole new world, and for that, Jordyn will be especially grateful.

“The feeling I got when we got to the cemetery was overwhelming [because of] all the people who had died for our country,” Jordyn said. “There are so many people who have fought in the United States, and we don’t all do a ton to recognize that. The emotions felt when standing in the middle of gravestones and raking [were powerful]. To just look out and see all of the places people are buried– the things you think about in your head and the emotions that come through you are insane. I definitely think the most influential part [of this trip] was the feelings [attached to the work we did].”