“Don’t let people forget what happened here. Don’t let them forget our story and the story of the men who died over here.”
That was the request Jake Schroeder received years ago while on a trip to Normandy, France with World War II veterans.
As Executive Director of the Denver Police Activities League (Denver PAL), Schroeder is following through on the promise he made to those men by ensuring that students fully understand their stories. Schroeder leads groups of teenagers to France through the Overlord Project at Denver PAL. (Overlord was the code name Allied Forces had for the Battle of Normandy in World War II.)
Overlord participants are chosen from the words they write in essays about D-Day. On June 6, 1944, American, British and Canadian forces invaded northern France. D-Day was the first day of the Battle of Normandy and from that time on, the momentum of World War II turned in favor of the Allied Forces. By the end of that summer, all of northern France was liberated from the Germans. The following spring, the Allied Forces defeated the Germans. The war ended in September of 1945.
That success came with a price. Over 425,000 men died during the Battle of Normandy.
“When I wrote my essay, I was thinking about all the sacrifices that the soldiers who died made,” Overlord student Josh said. “They weren’t that much older than me.”
Josh graduated St. Rose of Lima Catholic School in May and will be a freshman at Mullen High School in the fall.
Denver PAL is a non-profit organization that works with up to 4,500 Denver area students annually through sports leagues as well through educational and outdoor programs. It was established in 1969 by the late cable television pioneer and philanthropist Bill Daniels. Daniels wanted to provide children with engaging after-school programs and the opportunities to connect with mentors who would make a positive impression on them. The Daniels Fund continues to provide grants for many Denver PAL programs as do other community organizations and individuals.
“This trip allows for these students who come from humble means to be humbled in other ways,” Schroeder said. “A lot of these students have never travelled, let alone to Europe. We take them out of their neighborhoods and over to France where they learn the world is a much bigger place than what they’re accustomed to.”
Not only is Overlord a cultural experience, the educational component makes a deep connection with the teenagers.
“We spend four to five months preparing for the trip, talking about everything we’re going to experience,” Schroeder said. “We watch movies, listen to guest speakers and read books. It’s important that I take them over there with some back story and some knowledge about how big the Battle of Normandy really was in the scope of history.”
Denver PAL owns a home in Sainte-Mère-Eglise where students live during their 10 day trip. Locals in the town help provide meals for the students and teach them about french culture. The historical stories the locals share with the students make an impression. And then, walking in the fields and beaches where battles took place make a huge, lasting impact…. so do all the cemeteries.
“On the last trip, I was with a couple of students and just out of the blue, they got really, really emotional at one of the places we went,” Schroeder said. “They were on top of this hill where the Germans had sat and threw grenades at Allied Forces. I told the students about the brave soldiers who climbed the cliffs with their knives and their teeth and their fingernails while their friends were getting shot around them. Those men were determined and kept climbing and took those cliffs. I think realizing what took place there resonated with the students and they got emotional. I got pretty emotional too.”
Schroeder makes sure that students don’t shy away from this incredible learning opportunity out of financial concerns. Denver PAL raises money to allow for as many scholarships as possible. Many of the students who go on this trip come from limited means so Denver PAL helps organize and promote fundraising opportunities, like pancake breakfasts at schools.
“I want to facilitate as many kids that come from an economically stressed background to get to do this,” Schroeder said. “Fundraising is a very noble undertaking and a valuable lesson to give these kids. They get to see that it took some work to raise this money .. but look what happened.”
Aside from fundraising on the front-end, the students plan to share what they’ve learned with their communities, after they return back to Colorado.
“I’ve already promised someone who donated to help me take this trip that I will take a whole bunch of pictures, put them in a slideshow and present it when I come back,” Josh said. “I plan to do that a lot for people.”
Hearing those plans from Josh make Schroeder smile. That is the essence of what he wants to do with Denver PAL’s Overlord Project. It’s what he promised to his late friends who were World War II veterans. Beyond that, Schroeder knows he is honoring his late father, grandfather and great-grandfather who were also veterans.
Schroeder is very nostalgic and thinks back to when he was the same age as many of his high school participants. Back then, he would travel with the Boulder High School choir and perform in some of the most famous cathedrals in Europe, many of them in France.
His music career continued for many years after that. Schroeder was the lead singer for the successful Denver-based band, Opie Gone Bad. He continues to sign The National Anthem at Colorado Avalanche hockey games at the Pepsi Center.
“I am blessed with all that I’ve accomplished and I have a healthy family.. and now this stirs my passion and these kids are what drive it,” Schroeder said. “These kids are amazing. To give them an opportunity to get to do something like this and have them like it to is really … well.. this feels like my calling.”
To support Denver PAL’s Overlord Project: visit www.denverpal.com or text denverpal to 50555 to make a $5 donation.