Playa Vista first-grader leads schoolwide letter-writing campaign to support active-duty military overseas

By Gary Walker

Deklan Emmersen displays a couple of the 500-plus letters he inspired his classmates to create Photo by Joe Piasecki

Deklan Emmersen displays a couple of the 500-plus letters he inspired his classmates to create
Photo by Joe Piasecki

For six-year-old Deklan Emmersen, what started out as a simple act to lift the spirits of a family friend quickly turned into a lesson about the power of an idea.

Deklan, a first-grader at Playa Vista Elementary School, was inspired to write letters of support to active duty U.S.  armed services members stationed overseas after seeing a Wounded Warriors Project commercial on television. The TV spot was about returning veterans who were physically disabled and others who found coming home from the battlefield to be a mentally challenging transition.

In a matter of days, Deklan’s decision to take action morphed into a schoolwide effort that will result in more than 500 personal letters from local kids being delivered to overseas service members in time for Thanksgiving. Deklan has enlisted his Cub Scout pack to write letters as well.

Those letters will soon be delivered to Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that sends some 100,000 care packages, complete with letters and holiday treats, abroad each year.

Deklan’s family has a longtime friend who is a commander in the U.S. Navy, said his father, Derik Emmersen. Deklan told his dad that he feels sad the family friend is often deployed far from home for long periods of time.

“I asked him if he wanted to write just one letter or if he wanted to lead this, and he said he wanted to lead it,” Emmersen said of his son. “I told him that he had the responsibility to present the idea to his teacher and the school principal himself.”

After meeting with teacher Tammy Ritch and Playa Vista Elementary School Principal Rebecca Johnson to talk about his plan, Deklan was encouraged to invite the entire school to join his project during one of the school’s weekly Monday assemblies last month.

Deklan was nervous about speaking during the assembly, he said, “but nobody could tell that I was.”

“It’s pretty impressive,” Ritch said. “It means a lot to me because my husband’s in the military, and I think of this every year for a project with my kids. But to have it come from him was even more special.”

Ritch’s husband, who did two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now in the Army Reserves, was at the assembly where Deklan announced his plan to write to soldiers.

“I didn’t know exactly what the meeting with Principal Johnson was about but when I heard Deklan tell us about what he wanted to do I was just beaming, because I was having all of these connections that I could bring to light to help him make his vision come true,” Ritch recalled.

Ritch said Deklan’s letter-writing idea inspired his classmates and gave her the opportunity to talk about how to be inspired in a broader sense.

“These are the kind of life lessons that we really like to have in the classroom. [The students] really enjoy learning about these types of experiences, and this way they can make that connection,” she said.  “And when they’re able to make these connections as they did with Deklan’s speech, they really light up.”

Learn more about Operation Gratitude at