November 21, 2018

The hero in our midst

“You are somebody” Mel Feuer tells students at Horace Mann Elementary School. Mel is a 16-year volunteer for the Community Circle Program, sponsored by the Maple Counseling Center.  Community Circle is a student outreach program that serves over thirty elementary school classrooms in the Beverly Hills and Los Angeles Unified School Districts.  Students learn listening skills, self-respect and respect for others in a group setting that is confidential and safe.

So each week, Mel says “You are somebody.”  He encourages children to speak louder because “You are somebody.”  He urges them to present their thoughts clearly because “You are somebody”.  He discourages talking when other people are speaking, because “Everybody is somebody.”

“Children need to be taught respect, honesty, integrity, tolerance, compassion and personal validation in their formative years.  That is why I volunteer.”  Mel is 91 years old. The father of Michael Feuer, City Attorney, Mel retired as a principal in the San Bernardino city school system after 36 years service. But Mel is something more. He saw first-hand what happens when society turns its back on human values. And he has a story to tell.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, Mel asked the fifth-graders at Horace Mann,   “What is a veteran?”  After a few hints, they came up with a proper definition.  Then Mel launched into his unique veteran’s tale that began when he volunteered to join the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, at the age of 19.

Cleveland, Ohio, 1942.  Like many Americans, Mel and his family became increasingly aware of what was happening in Europe.  This war was not armies clashing on battlefields. It was a war against civilization.  As a freedom-loving American and a Jew, Mel felt that he had a personal responsibility to fight the Nazis.  He enlisted, and after serving as an aerial gunnery instructor, he volunteered for active duty in Europe, where he was a ball turret gunner on a B-24 bomber. 

The kids listened in quiet respect as Mel’s story unfolded in their classroom over two weeks. Shot down in April 1944, while on a mission to bomb German submarine pens in Occupied France, Mel parachuted to the ground.  He found himself in a farm field surrounded by German soldiers.  Bullets ricocheted around his head.

Taken prisoner and questioned by the Germans, Mel held to U.S. Army regulations and revealed only his name, rank, and serial number.  To his amazement—and good fortune—his captors never looked at his dog tags, which contained the identifying letter “H” for “Hebrew” or “Jew”  and meant certain death.

Mel was sent to Stalag 17 in Austria a prisoner of war camp.  Stalag 17 first entered the mainstream American consciousness in the 1951 when the play ‘Stalag 13” opened on Broadway, followed by a movie of the same name in 1953.  It was a box-office success, and William Holden won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the tough American POW who organized sabotage and black-market activity from behind barbed wire.  In the 1960s and early 70’s we watched “Hogan’s Heroes” from the comfort of our living rooms – and cheered for the clever American POW’s in Stalag 13 as they outsmarted the Germans. 

Survival, not sabotage was the reality in Stalag 17.  Mel spent one year as a POW, primarily on hope and Red Cross rations.  Optimism, he said, was the key.  His fellow soldiers expressed fear that they would “never get out of here alive”. Mel assured them that they would.  On May 3rd 1945 they were marched to western Austria by the Germans and liberated by American troops. 

Mel passed around his photo as a young, dark-haired aerial gunner with a fearless grin.  He had attained the rank of Staff Sergeant.  Then he passed around his dog-tags and medals.  How many of us have ever actually seen or held a real medal?  Felt the weight?  Read the words? And heard from the person who earned them what was necessary to earn them?  It was a privilege to be in the room that day as such a precious legacy passed on to thirty curious students.  Mel’s story was the real thing – an example of raw courage and strength of character.

I felt the need to speak up. “Now that you have heard his story, what would you call Mel?”  Several hands went up.  “A warrior”, said one boy.   “Yes, but what else?” I asked.  “A veteran” said another.  “Yes, but what else?”  “A hero” one child said.  “Yes” I said, “Mel is a hero.”

You can be a local hero.  Currently, volunteers trained in the Community Circle curriculum administer the program in local schools. No particular background or experience is necessary to join this group of committed people. 

Volunteer training sessions for The Community Circle Program are held at The Maple Counseling Center, 9107 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills.  

For more information please call The Maple Counseling Center at (310) 271 – 9999 and ask to for LuNel LeMieux or email lunellemieux@verizon.net.

Here is how The Community Circle Program works:

Teachers receive an annual invitation to request the program for their classroom.  Those teachers who respond are assigned a group leader who comes into the classroom once a week for approximately 25 minutes, to lead the students in an age appropriate curriculum that includes group discussion, story-telling and role-playing.  Some topics we cover are listening, friendship, honesty, feelings, and bullying.    

New volunteers receive training through observation of seasoned group leaders in the classroom and weekly supervision meetings where the group has its own “Community Circle” and shares the successes and challenges they have faced in the classroom that week. Questions are answered and group insight is given.