NEW HAVEN — Even though the school year ended in Mason County a few weeks ago, one New Haven Elementary School class has left a legacy in honor of a special man that will last a lifetime.
The story begins during the 2012-2013 school year, when Mitchell Holley was serving as a foster grandparent in Rhonda Tennant’s fourth-grade class. Holley and his wife, Carolyn, both served in the grandparent program, and for a while, Mr. Holley was the first and only foster male in the county.
According to Tennant, Mr. Holley worked very well with the children, and the students became quite fond of him. She added he was very helpful in the classroom, listening to the students read, helping with homework, and even serving as a “handy repairman.”
“He added to our studies by telling stories about his own experiences as a big rig truck driver, traveling all over the U.S.,” Tennant stated. “He also talked about once owning his own plane and being a pilot. But most of all, he was a proud Army veteran of the Vietnam War. Consequently, he had seen a lot of the world and could add interesting tidbits to topics that might come up in our studies. Also, on Veterans Day, we had our own in-house guest speaker.”
Toward the end of the school year, Holley began having health issues and missed school. Tennant and the children learned he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Holley passed away last summer.
When the most recent school year began, the students moved to fifth grade, but still missed Grandpa Holley.
“The class and I still miss Grandpa and we decided to write a book that we could present to his widow, Grandma Carolyn, in memory of this wonderful person we no longer have in our lives,” Tennant said. “It was difficult to find time to work on the book since I was in fourth grade and they were in fifth, so most of the work had to be done at recess or after school. Also, we had to keep our work on it ‘top secret’ because we didn’t want Grandma Carolyn to hear of the surprise until we were ready to present it.”
The book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” was completed, and an assembly for the presentation was held the last week of school. All of the foster grandparents at the school were invited as special guests. The intermediate grade students attended, along with some of Grandma Carolyn’s family, and one of her bosses, John Ballengee, president of the United Way of Central West Virginia.
Mr. Ballengee explained that the United Way sponsors the Foster Grandparent Program, which allows senior citizens to work in the schools with children, while allowing them to earn income. He commented that the writing of the book revealed how valuable the grandparents’ presence can be to the students and the schools.
Tennant prepared a Power Point presentation of the book, and read it aloud at the assembly. A group of the fifth graders presented copies to Grandma Carolyn and Mr. Ballengee. The students who worked on the book will also receive a copy.
According to Tennant, a literary agent from California has taken interest in publishing the story as a picture book for children. The agent said the book might be of value to children coping with the death of a loved one.
“While I’m pleased and impressed that a literary agent is interested in trying to get our book published, I cautioned the children that publishing commercially is extremely competitive and not likely to happen,” Tennant added. “But we can keep our fingers crossed.
“Meanwhile, we can be proud that we have commemorated someone who was very special to us,” the teacher concluded. “Grandpa Holley loved us and we loved him. And if telling our story has helped in our healing process or proves to be of value to someone else who is grieving, then we’ve done a very noteworthy thing.”