BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — Michelle Avery had five kids at home, including newly arrived triplets, and her husband was about to be deployed to the Middle East for the second time, when Jennifer Flewelling, then the principal of the North Beverly Elementary School, approached her in 2010.
Flewelling said the school was forming a new group to assist military families, and she wondered if Avery, whose son attends the North Beverly School, would be interested in joining.
“It was the holidays, Mark was leaving in another month,” Avery said. “I think I burst out crying. Emotions were just very high then.”
The story of the North Beverly School’s innovative program, and its impact on military families like the Averys, was the subject of a new video that premiered at the Statehouse yesterday.
Hosted by Beverly state Rep. and U.S. Army Reservist Jerry Parisella and his wife, Lisa, the event drew 185 people to the Statehouse Great Room.
The North Beverly School program, called Fort Beverly, was held up by speakers as a model for how schools can reach out to help military-connected children and their families.
Referring to Fort Beverly and a new website unveiled yesterday, retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond said, “It’s because of you that thousands of civilians will understand the service and sacrifice of military families.”
Hammond is executive director of the Home Base Program, a partnership between the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital that serves Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families throughout New England.
Home Base used yesterday’s ceremony to introduce StayingStrong.org, designed to assist military families. It promoted the website with a 26-minute video called “Staying Strong: How Schools Build Resilience in Military Families.”
The video is essentially a documentary about the formation of the Fort Beverly program and the impact of military deployment on the Avery and Parisella families. Parisella, the father of an 8-year-old girl, Sophia, is a major in the U.S. Army Reserve who was sent to Iraq just months after he was elected state representative.
In the video, Michelle Avery tells the story of how she gave birth to triplets during her husband Mark’s first deployment.
“We had figured one deployment was enough, but he had a job to do, so off he went again with five kids at home ...” she said. “When Mark left, their life kind of just went ‘kaboom.’”
Flewelling, who is now an elementary school principal in Brookline, said she and her staff began discussing ways to help military families when a Coast Guard family moved into the school district two years ago, followed quickly by the deployment of Avery and Parisella.
Lisa Parisella came up with the name Fort Beverly. The program included an in-school support group for students of military-connected families, as well as nights out at local restaurants for the adults in the families.
Speakers at yesterday’s event said the North Beverly School program is an example of how schools can reach out and help military families, who must deal with the long absence of a military parent, concerns about his or her safety, and the adjustment when the parent returns home.
Many school districts have yet to take the step of even identifying which students have parents in the military, speakers said. An estimated 13,000 children in Massachusetts have military connections.
Beverly High School took a survey last spring that identified nearly 100 families who are connected to the military in some way, said Principal Sean Gallagher, who attended the ceremony.
“It’s an under-identified population of students,” Gallagher said.
Jerry Parisella said he was comforted by the fact that his daughter’s school provided assistance while he was serving in Iraq for 11 months.
“I was concerned, especially with Sophia being 6 years old,” he said. “The Beverly schools really stepped up. We want to be focused on the mission and not be worried about the homefront.”
As part of yesterday’s event, Massachusetts Veterans Services Secretary Coleman Nee moderated a panel that included Flewelling and Lisa Parisella.
Representatives of North Beverly School included current Principal Erin Brown, school nurse June Kazes, former school adjustment counselor Jennifer Rogers-Burke, and teachers Donna Klimowicz and Patricia Drinkwater. Beverly Veterans Agent Jerry Guilebbe also attended.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.