NIAGARA FALLS AIR RESERVE STATION, N.Y. --
On a warm June morning, on the second last day of school, fifth graders at A.J. Schmidt Elementary School in Angola, New York filed into the gym for their graduation ceremony.
The yearly ceremony is an opportunity for teachers and dignitaries to recognize students for their hard work and professionalism over the course of the school year, as well as commemorate the student’s graduation from the fifth grade.
The ceremony was attended by parents and family as well as several special guests. Among those guests was Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Foucha, 914th Fire Emergency Services, Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station; along with his parents, Robin and Randy Foucha, his son, Eddie Foucha, his sister, April Conrow and her son, Randy Conrow.
Every year the Fouchas attend the ceremony for a special reason. Joe Foucha grew up in Angola with his family. He and his younger brother, Eddie attended A.J. Schmidt Elementary together.
Eddie was diagnosed with cancer as a young child. Brain surgery was necessary as part of the treatment to remove the cancer, but it left Eddie with motor skill impairments, requiring him to be placed in a special education classroom. The impairment also required Eddie to wear a helmet.
Eddie had a lot of obstacles to overcome because of his illness. Being placed in a different classroom and having to wear a helmet, he stood apart from his peers. This was difficult for Eddie because all he wanted was to be just like everyone else.
In his seventh year of remission, Eddie unexpectedly fell ill again. One day over the summer he suddenly developed a limp. The cancer had returned. Joe lost his brother on Christmas Eve of the same year.
The Fouchas come to the fifth grade graduation at A.J. Schmidt Elementary to honor Eddie’s memory by recognizing a student who has achieved academic excellence despite having faced a great amount of adversity. The student is awarded a generous scholarship from the Foucha family and their name is added to a plaque displayed in the hall, near the entrance of the school.
The purpose of the Foucha’s annual visit to the school is not only to present a scholarship to a deserving student, but to spread the message of the importance and value of compassion. Joe stressed this point in his speech to the students and their families on Tuesday.
“I promise you, somebody to your left or to your right is struggling. Somebody is going through difficult times,” said Joe. “Just look out for each other. If you see somebody that looks sad, go talk to them. That little bit of kindness will go a long way.”
For the Foucha family, spreading the message of kindness is a way to honor Eddie’s memory.
Emphasizing the value of kindness and compassion to children today takes on a newly profound and meaningful note in the face of modern technology and the fact that it’s so deeply integrated into the way children and adults alike socialize and will continue to do so moving forward. Joe touched on this as he addressed the students.
“It’s a tough life for a kid today. It was tough for us, but we didn’t have social media. You guys have a tougher social experience than we ever had,” said Joe. “People are meaner today. Things can get blown out of proportion quickly. Look out for each other. Be good. Be kind.”
Mrs. Jill Clark, Principal of A.J. Schmidt Elementary, has hosted the Fouchas for the past several years and believes that their message of perseverance, strength, and compassion is invaluable to everyone.
“It’s profound,” said Mrs. Clark. “Always be kind. That’s the message.”
The Foucha family’s message of kindness is one that will continue to fill the crowded gymnasium of A.J. Schmidt Elementary School every year as new classes of fifth graders prepare to move on to middle school. Eddie’s memory is honored and will live on through the message his family and the students carry with them.