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Take Five: Meet Denise Weiland, Living History Program Coordinator

By AMY SENK

Monday is Memorial Day, a day when we honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. And while we pay our respects and mourn those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, I thought it would be a good time to catch up with living veterans and to find out what is going on with the Living History Program. The program, which pairs veterans with small groups of high school sophomores, began in 1999 at Corona del Mar High School and has since expanded to other campuses. I caught up with coordinator Denise Weiland to learn more.

Take Five Meet Denise Weiland Jack and Denise

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Photos courtesy of Denise Weiland/Living History Program

Jack Hammett, WWll veteran, Pearl Harbor survivor and founder of the FCOC with Denise Weiland, Living History Program Coordinator

Q: How would you describe the Living History Program?

A: Jack Hammett, a WWII veteran, Pearl Harbor survivor and founder of the Freedom Committee of Orange County, or FCOC, introduced the Living History Program to Corona del Mar High School in 1999, with five WWII veterans from the FCOC speaking on a panel. The Freedom Committee of Orange County is a nonprofit organization of volunteers whose mission is “Passing the Torch of Liberty on to Future Generations” by bringing living history to the classroom. Most students learn history from a textbook, whereas the Living History Program provides students the opportunity to learn from those who created history through their service and sacrifices defending our freedoms.

Q: How did you become involved in the Living History Program, and how has it changed over the years?

A: My father served in WWII, flying supplies over the Burma Hump (the foothills of the Himalayas, now Myanmar), so I had a keen interest in WWII history. I was on the staff at CdMHS, so working with Jack to develop the Living History Program at CdMHS was a natural fit. We started organizing students into small groups to interview a veteran, videotape the interview, and write a reflection on the experience. Each spring, we hosted a luncheon for the students and participating veterans, to celebrate their stories of service and present them with a keepsake of their interview. After observing the program’s success at CdMHS, the School Board asked us to expand it to include more schools, and we now have the LHP in all our high schools and a number of our middle schools.

Take Five Meet Denise Weiland Ensign School

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FCOC Veterans at Ensign Intermediate in 2020 during the Living History Program with Lindsay Charron, history teacher (right, row 2)

Q: Twenty years is a long time. Why do you think the Living History Program has been so successful?

A: Our honored FCOC veterans, our dedicated teachers and principals and the Newport-Mesa Unified School District are all responsible for our continued success. Although a student may interview a family member or neighbor, our students usually interview a veteran vetted and trained by the FCOC. For 20 years, I have participated in the FCOC’s monthly meetings and worked closely with its leadership and veteran volunteers, and our school faculty, to plan, schedule and coordinate the LHP interviews and events. Jack passed in 2014 at the age of 94, but only after preparing Vietnam veteran Scott Williams to seamlessly assume the leadership and presidency of the FCOC. Scott and I share Jack’s vision and are passionate about preserving his legacy by providing students with this firsthand educational experience.

Take Five Meet Denise Weiland NHHS

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FCOC Veterans at NHHS in 2019 during the Living History Program with Principal Sean Boulton (left) and teacher Garrett Govaars (right)

Q: How has COVID-19 affected the Living History Program?

A: Obviously, COVID-19 has significantly affected how our students, veterans and faculty interact, but many of the changes have been positive. Our veterans have endured and adapted to many challenges and hardships in their lives, so it is not surprising that they quickly learned to share their stories of service using Zoom. Not only can our veterans safely interact with any number of students, Zoom’s share screen feature allows them to show their PowerPoint presentations while sharing their stories and answering questions. Our veterans have really stepped up by purchasing laptop computers, mastering new technologies and polishing their presentations. During this time of social isolation, with each of us longing for human connection, it has been a blessing to spend significant one-on-one time with each veteran exploring how to best navigate this new format. Even after knowing many of these gentlemen for two decades, they continue to surprise and inspire me with new anecdotes and insights from their years of service.

Q: Does the Living History Program offer any lessons for us today?

A: We live in a time of fear and uncertainty; our lives and way of life threatened by forces beyond our control. But our veterans faced far worse challenges and perils before returning home to pursue productive and purposeful lives. Their stories of brotherhood, responsibility, courage, sacrifice, perseverance, faith and hope still resonate strongly today. Jack always ended his student presentations by saying, “Take good care of my country!” If the Living History Program has a lesson to offer today, it would be to do as Jack asked, to take care of our country by taking care of each other.

Take Five Meet Denise Weiland CdMHS

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Veterans attending the Living History Program luncheon at Corona del Mar High School in 2019

Editor’s Note: A group of WWII veterans, with Jack R. Hammett as the leader, founded the Freedom Committee of Orange County (FCOC) in 1995, the 50th Anniversary of the end of WWII, to remind the next generation of the sacrifices made by our veterans to preserve our nation’s freedom. In 2011, the organization of veterans was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public benefit organization whose purpose is to bring the stories of those who lived it to students. Denise Weiland and schoolteachers, principals and volunteers have encouraged and promoted the program in the NMUSD, and for that they are thankful. For more information about The Freedom Committee of Orange County (FCOC), visit the nonprofit’s website at http://fc-oc.org. For more details about the Living History Program presented through distance learning, see the following article published by the NMUSD: http://web.nmusd.us/pf4/cms2/news_themed_display?id=1586945002894.

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Amy Senk is a longtime resident of Corona del Mar and a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.