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Chinook helicopter makes surprise Friday landing at Gore Bay schoolyard, teacher honoured for military support

Heather Jefkins, armed forces advocate

GORE BAY鈥擟harles C. McLean Public School teacher Heather Jefkins was in tears well before a Royal Canadian Armed Forces Chinook helicopter even landed at the school鈥檚 playground last Friday, and this was before she was deservedly presented with a special RCAF Centennial Coin. She believed the helicopter鈥檚 arrival was a surprise for her and her Grade 3-4 class as part of her 鈥楩lat Stanley鈥 penpal program.

A few minutes after landing, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Harris (Commanding Officer) of the 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron made a special presentation to Ms. Jefkins for her numerous contributions to the Canadian Armed Forces, including the creation of Operation Flat Stanley, Operation Troop Support (Christmas care packages to members of the Canadian Forces serving in other parts of the world) and her designation 11 years ago as an Honourary United Nations Peacekeeper (exemplifying her dedication and service).

鈥淧lease come forward,鈥 Lieutenant Colonel Harris requested Ms. Jefkins, as troops from the RCAF helicopter and all C.C. McLean students and staff were on hand to watch the presentation. 鈥淭here are plenty of people who help volunteer to help provide care packages for our Forces members. One of these people who is heavily involved in this is Ms. Jefkins. Heather is one of the biggest supporters of the Canadian Forces on Manitoulin Island, with (Christmas) care packages to our troops overseas, the Flat Stanley pen pal program, and allowing students to find out and understand what the Canadian Forces are all about. You have done all of this to support people like us and all members of the Canadian Armed Forces.鈥

鈥淗eather has been recognized for the work that she does by the Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), Lieutenant General Eric Kenny. He has offered an RCAF 100 coin for Heather. As part of the RCAF Centennial this year, the Commander came up with the idea of having 100 coins made to present to deserving persons like Heather. Only 100 coins like this are in existence,鈥 said Lt. Col. Harris. 鈥淚t is an honour and a pleasure to have the responsibility to present one of these coins to Heather.鈥 

鈥淭hank you for everything you do for the CAF,鈥 stated Lt. Col. Harris, who had to almost immediately coax all the students, to 鈥渢ell Ms. Jefkins to stop crying.鈥 He then asked the students if the C.C. McLean teacher is ever at a loss for words.

鈥淚 am today,鈥 stated Ms. Jefkins. 鈥淭hank you so much. I started working with Canadian Armed Forces in 2006 and have worked with so many great people over the years. I started when our Canadian troops were in Afghanistan, by having students write letters to our soldiers. I was at a loss as to how to help, and my students wrote letters and packed boxes.鈥

SPECIAL DELIVERY VIA CHINOOK鈥擜 Royal Canadian Armed Forces Chinook helicopter lands at the playground area at Charles C. McLean Public School. photos by Tom Sasvari

Ms. Jefkins said that she started the Flat Stanley program after she and her Grade 4/5 class read the popular children鈥檚 book, 鈥楩lat Stanley.鈥 The students then created their own unique Stanleys, dressed in the distinct camouflage of the CAF. Students then wrote letters and took photos with their Stanleys before 鈥渄eploying鈥 them to Canadian Armed Forces Bases across Canada.

It was through the participation of Major Dave White, who was one of the first Stanley volunteers, along with more than 30 others, that the program really took off. 鈥淗e would take his Flat Stanley everywhere he went, taking photos and sending them to our class, as well as encouraging other CAF Members at CFB Goose Bay to do the same,鈥 said Ms. Jefkins, who noted her daughter Bella was one of her first Flat Stanley students when she was in Grade 4 in 2013. 鈥淲ith the help of all the CAF members that participated, the students learned so much about the military and how important they are. I have met so many wonderful people through this program, some of whom I now call friends, like Dave.鈥

鈥淗eather cares so much for people. She continually tries to do more for people and doesn鈥檛 ask for anything in return,鈥 said Major Dave White, who serves in the CAF with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, as part of the 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron. He has been involved in the Flat Stanley program since its inception in 2013, and that is how he met Ms. Jefkins. When he heard of the RCAF Centennial initiative to present 100 coins to 100 Canadians, he immediately thought of Ms. Jefkins and nominated her for this recognition. The initiative aims to recognize 100 Canadians who embody RCAF values, with each receiving a special edition RCAF Centennial coin.

Major Dave White and former student and now Major Tim Armstrong surprised Heather Jefkins with a visit from a Chinook helicopter last week.

鈥淲hen a member of the military is deployed anywhere around the world and they receive these care packages or letters, it provides a phenomenal feeling,鈥 said Major White. 鈥淚t means so much to each of them because it reminds them of home, and the support that they have.鈥

Among several RCAF officers and crew on hand was Major Tim Armstrong, who grew up in Gordon/Barrie Island and was a former student of Ms. Jefkins.

鈥淚 was in Ms. Jefkins鈥 Grade 5 class,鈥 Major Armstrong said. 鈥淪he instilled in me a love of history and on the 100th anniversary of the RCAF and the 80th anniversary of the D-Day yesterday (June 6) it is fitting that we are here presenting this very deserving recognition to her.鈥 

Lieutenant-Colonel (Commanding Officer) Harris then called upon C.C. McLean Principal Robyn Best, 鈥淚 am making a presentation of a special Squadron Commander鈥檚 coin to Ms. Best, as a lot of organization behind the scenes has gone into this event today. I present this coin to members of my squadron after they鈥檝e done something excellent in the workplace. Thank you very much for keeping it a secret and for all the organization and the work you鈥檝e done to make this happen today.鈥

Major Dave White, who nominated Heather Jefkins for the award, got to meet his penpal, Grade 3 student Jack Pfeifer.

Ms. Best said that programs like the Christmas packages program, writing letters to CAF members and being pen pals with them, 鈥済ives the students a real purpose and really ignites their desire to learn.鈥

Lt. Colonel Harris then coaxed the students to run a lap around the track at C.C. McLean before they were able to take a tour and look inside the Chinook. The Chinook in question is one of 14 helicopters in service with the 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, based at CFB Petawawa. The helicopters, which are designed to carry about 36 passengers, are used by the CAF in situations where they are needed to transport equipment or personnel in domestic situations such as flood and fire relief within Canada, deployments around the world and search and rescue operations. Students had an opportunity to tour the aircraft, speak with the crew and even get autographs.

Only 100 鈥100 Coins for 100 Canadians鈥 were minted and Heather Jefkins is one of the few to be honoured for her unwavering support of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The Expositor caught up to Ms. Jefkins (who will be retiring as of June 28 after a 30-year teaching career) a day after receiving the RCAF coin. She was still absolutely shocked to be the recipient of the award. 鈥淚 had no idea the Chinook was coming. Major Dave White and I had texted back and forth this past winter about his idea of getting a helicopter to the school so he could surprise his penpal (Grade 3 student Jack Pfeifer), but seeing that it is getting late in the school year I was going with the idea that it was not going to happen. Dave and I message back and forth quite a bit and on Thursday night he told me he wanted to get Jack a hat and shirt. I was thinking he would send it in the mail.鈥

On Friday, at the time the military helicopter was to arrive at C.C. McLean, 鈥淚 was on recess duty,鈥 said Ms. Jefkins. 鈥淚 saw the police go by the classroom window, and then I saw Tom Sasvari and Mike Erskine walk by and I was wondering what it was all about because you are both from the same paper, but still I wasn鈥檛 thinking anything big was taking place that involved me. The students were watching the police walking past the window and then one of the students said, 鈥楾here鈥檚 a helicopter.鈥 Then I heard a loud 鈥榳homp-whomp-whomp鈥 sound and thought there is only one that that makes that sound.鈥

Heather Jefkins embraces Major Dave White, who nominated the teacher for the special acknowledgment.

So, she walked out of the school saying, 鈥淚鈥檝e been had.鈥

鈥淚 really thought Dave had been able to pull the visit off without telling me. I never dreamed that they would land a helicopter at the school, and that they would do all of this to present one of my students with a hat and shirt. I thought it was a pretty big deal for one student and the rest of my class of Grade 3-4s. I had no clue the Lieutenant Colonel and Chief Warrant Officer (Carmen Bear) would be here. I thought it was a big surprise that Dave had organized for our class, and I had no clue that Tim (Armstrong) would be there,鈥 said Ms. Jefkins.

After having had time to digest having been presented with a 100 Coins to 100 Canadians coin, Ms. Jefkins stated, 鈥淚t is such an honour. I can鈥檛 put it into words. I鈥檝e had the opportunity to work with so many great people in the military through the years.鈥 She concluded with, 鈥淚 couldn鈥檛 have done any of this for the past 18 years without the amazing community support from around Manitoulin Island. Any time I have put up my hand for help with the Christmas boxes or anything else, everyone I鈥檝e ever approached from community members to parents to businesses, no one has ever said no. It has always been 鈥榟ow many (items) do you need, Heather,鈥 or 鈥榃hat can we do to help?鈥欌

When asked if she intended to continue with providing morale mail projects after her retirement, she stated that she is still working through possible ideas about how she might run the programs in the future, and if it would be possible outside of the classroom setting.

鈥淩eceiving this honour made me cry my head off, because I鈥檝e worked with so many great people over the years and everyone has been so supportive,鈥 concluded Ms. Jefkins. 鈥淚t still seems unreal to me that all of this has happened.鈥澛

Charles C. McLean students had the unique opportunity to tour a Chinook helicopter that landed in their schoolyard. photo by Tom Sasvari

Article written by

Tom Sasvari
Tom Sasvari
Tom Sasvari serves as the West Manitoulin news editor providing almost all of the editorial content of The Manitoulin West Recorder. Mr. Sasvari is a graduate of North Bay鈥檚 Canadore College School of Journalism and has been employed on Manitoulin Island, at the Manitoulin West Recorder, for more than a quarter-century. Mr. Sasvari is also an active community volunteer. His office is in Gore Bay.