Coatesville community creates its own ROTC club after school funds lapsed

Coatesville ninth grader Natalie Nieves stands with fellow students, members of the Joint Service Military Corps.
Coatesville ninth grader Natalie Nieves stands with fellow students, members of the Joint Service Military Corps. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 07, 2013

Ninth grader Natalie Nieves has known for a few years that she wants to join the military, like her cousin and uncle.

In middle school, she looked forward to joining Coatesville Area High School's Air Force Junior ROTC. Then, she heard the 36-year-old program, the only one in Chester County, was in trouble.

In the summer of 2012, parents and students had raised $157,000 that the district said it needed to save Junior ROTC for the coming school year.

The national program wanted the school district to commit to funding the group in the future, but the district said it couldn't, so the program folded.

Parents, students, and community members had already raised about $50,000 for this school year when they learned the program was cut.

So they created their own club, the Joint Service Military Corps, an after-school club that trains and exposes high school students to aspects of all five military branches.

"These are amazing kids. They're go-getters. They don't accept defeat," said parent adviser Tom Audette, who helped create the club with fellow parent adviser Coleen Beckershoff.

Organizers and even officials from the national Junior ROTC say the privately organized and funded group might be the only club of its kind in the country.

The Coatesville group's organizers hope theirs could become a model as schools struggle to keep funding traditional activities. About a dozen Air Force Junior ROTC programs nationwide have disbanded in the last five years because of funding woes.

"We hate to see any program close," said Col. Greg Winn, deputy director of the national Air Force Junior ROTC.

In Coatesville, Audette enlisted military recruiters as volunteers to help with the new program.

"Every branch was like, 'Wow, that's amazing. We're in,' " he said. "I guess they see the same things in these kids that I did."

Coatesville's school board president, Neil Campbell, said he couldn't be happier about the students' dedication to their new club. Despite the budget woes, "our cadets did not stand down," Campbell said in an e-mail.

The Joint Service Military Corps flag shows a bird emerging from fire - a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Junior ROTC program.

The symbol is a chance at rebirth both for the defunct program and a district that got so much negative attention after the September resignations of Superintendent Richard Como and athletic director James Donato over racist and sexist text messages.

"I believe something good always comes from something bad," said Beckershoff.

Members of the club will march with the flag at Saturday's Christmas parade in Coatesville.

The group's organizers hope the club, which started meeting in October and has about 40 members, can offer students course credit in the future.

Representatives from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard have volunteered to teach students about the branches and help parents and two teachers advise the club, which meets twice a week.

"It's an awesome thing, because there's a branch for everyone," said Sgt. First Class Bryan Schmehl of the state's Army National Guard.

"Yeah, we're a military club," Schmehl told the group's senior-ranking leaders during a meeting Tuesday. "But let's be the best damn military club out there."

The rest of the 2,500-student high school can tell who's in the club by the military uniforms cadets wear once a week, just as they did in Junior ROTC.

The club used donations to buy uniforms for its members. The students are only responsible for buying boots, which are discounted at the Coatesville Army & Navy store.

The program's advisers also hope the community will be able to pick their students out even when they're not in uniform.

Although not all students will enter the military or college-level ROTC programs, the club teaches citizenship, discipline, community service, and leadership.

Several cadets said the group was a family.

Chasan Hall, a cadet captain and 12th grader, said he and others with Junior ROTC experience wanted to pass it on to younger students.

"It's important to us that we give them the same opportunity we had," said Hall, who spent three years in the program and is applying to the Air Force Academy.

Natalie Nieves said she had to give up basketball to join the after-school club this year. But the move is part of her bigger plan.

"It means having a lot of pride in myself," the cadet said, "and being a great representative of Coatesville."


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8105 @MichaelleBond

 

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