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Oak Hill students visit with soldier pen pal

Special Photos: Erin Evans Oak Hill Elementary School second-grader Anjoli Gomes presents a picture she made for First Lt. Luis Mendez. Second-graders in Kristy Rider's class at Oak Hill have been writing letters to Mendez for the past six months while he was deployed to Cuba

Special Photos: Erin Evans Oak Hill Elementary School second-grader Anjoli Gomes presents a picture she made for First Lt. Luis Mendez. Second-graders in Kristy Rider's class at Oak Hill have been writing letters to Mendez for the past six months while he was deployed to Cuba

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Students welcomes Mendez to the school with a special celebration in the hallway. Pictured, from left, are second-graders Faith Kamau, Ayanna Wilson, Caiden Bailey, Nick McGee and Chuks Ojiako.

COVINGTON -- Students at Oak Hill Elementary School finally got to meet a hero they've been communicating with this school year.

First Lt. Luis Mendez, a resident of Woodstock who has been deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the past six months while serving in the U.S. Army, has been pen pals with Kristy Rider's second-grade class at Oak Hill.

"These kids have been awesome," he said. "It helps time go by fast."

The students have written him letters and sent him postcards and a Christmas package.

"It's nice to receive hand-written letters," he said. "And it's good to have people support us."

Rider said it has been a learning experience for her students and herself.

"I am blessed to have this group of kids that has embraced this once-in-a-lifetime experience to meet and communicate with Luis," she said. "I hope others will take advantage of opportunities like this because not only does it instill values and a sense of comfort and patriotism in children, but their excitement also spreads to teachers, parents and other members of the community."

Rider said her students were excited that Mendez wrote the students letters while he was deployed, but they were even more excited to meet him in person.

Recently, Mendez got to tell them thank you when he came home for a few days. The students even welcomed him to the school with a special celebration and drawings.

"I did not expect that at all -- it was a total surprise," Mendez said. "It was great."

They were equally as enthusiastic about his visit.

"Several of them told me personally that it was the best day of their lives because a real life soldier came to their class," Rider said. "I am so proud of my students because they have opened their minds to this experience and put a lot of thought and concern into what Luis does for our country. They asked him some tough questions, and we all learned a lot."

Mendez presented the class with a certificate, as well as a flag that had flown for 9 minutes and 11 seconds in honor of Sept. 11.

"I was brought to tears to think that Luis and his group thought that much of my class to bring us such a patriotic gift," Rider said. "It is something that will forever be in my classroom and a story to tell my students for many years to come."

Mendez will return to Cuba for another six months and can't wait to receive more letters from the students.

"I can't wait to write them when I get back," he said. "The kids are great."