Thanks to the second and third grade students at Panther Valley Elementary School, SPC Joseph Bevins of Coaldale will have a few more comforts from home this holiday season.

Bevins, a 2011 graduate of Panther Valley School District, is currently stationed in Afghanistan with the 411th Engineer Brigade of New York. He was chosen earlier this year for Heather Wagner's third grade class's annual "Adopt a Soldier" program.

"It's something that we try to do each year," said Wagner.

While Wagner's classroom has adopted a soldier every Christmas over the past 3 years, this is the first year that her classroom has supported a Panther Valley graduate. Word quickly spread through the school and other second and third grade teachers began expressing interest in taking part in the project.

"Because we adopted Joey, there was a lot of interest in supporting him. It just exploded," she said. "Everybody wanted to join in, which was great. It's definitely the largest Adopt a Soldier project that we've done."

Wagner sent home a letter with each second and third grade student, letting them know that they were adopting a soldier from the Panther Valley School District and encouraging them to consider donating an item.

"We researched all types of things that would be useful for soldiers," she said. Items included portable snacks, personal hygiene items, and fun items like magazines and non-battery games or playing cards. "We asked each student to bring in one item or $1 to help with shipping costs. The next day, I had items coming in. It was awesome."

As donations began coming in, she realized that this would be the school's biggest Adopt a Soldier program to date. Students didn't just bring in one requested item - they brought in large bags filled with necessary and fun items for soldiers. Faculty and students also donated more than $100.

"They were very excited," she said. "Every morning, something would come in. The students were so proud of themselves for helping someone in the military." Wagner noted that while the concept of deployment is hard for some third graders to understand, everyone was glad to support a local soldier and a recent Panther Valley graduate.

The students gathered enough items to fill 34 International Priority Mail boxes, enough to ensure that many soldiers in Bevin's unit will receive an item for the holidays.

"He said he's going to share the wealth," said Wagner, noting that Bevin has expressed tremendous appreciation for the hometown support.

The cost of shipping the package was paid in part by donations; the Panther Valley Elementary School's Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) sponsored the remainder of shipping costs. The PTO has sponsored Wagner's project since its inception 3 years ago. While Wagner was concerned about the cost of shipping so many boxes - 34 boxes, compared to a normal year of 5-6 boxes - the PTO willingly agreed to continue to pay for shipping.

"They did a great job, and the kids really enjoy doing this," said PTO President Lori Dacey. "It makes the soldier we're adopting feel good, but it's also good for the kids. There are a lot of kids in the district who have family members serving in the military."

Dacey added that she's proud to support the project each year, and hopes that this year's packages will bring a bit of cheer to their Panther Valley soldier.

"It's tough being overseas for the holiday season," she said. "Hopefully, our boxes will bring a little bit of joy and some comforts of home."