While deployed nearly 7,000 miles away from home, a soldier celebrated his birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas without family.

But just after Christmas, the Center Grove native got four boxes of beef jerky, sunflower seeds, health care items and letters from his former elementary school, giving him a little taste of home.

A North Grove Elementary School class had decided to make a connection with Sgt. Eric Whitlow while he was deployed in Kuwait for six months.

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The class of second-graders was able to learn about what it’s like to serve in the military overseas, and Whitlow got some comfort items and encouragement while he was away.

This week, Whitlow, who graduated from Center Grove High School in 2012, came to North Grove Elementary School to answer questions and talk about his time in the military and meet the students.

Ever since North Grove had a Veterans Day celebration in the fall, teacher Karen Gutsch wanted her class to adopt a soldier.

“I feel like our citizens don’t have the level of patriotism today that they should,” Gutsch said. “It re-surfaced during 9/11, and then it just kind of dissipated again. And I feel like our younger generation needs to have pride and gratitude for our Armed Forces.”

Initially, Gutsch had a soldier in mind, but the plan fell through. Then, she saw a picture in the school’s hallway of Whitlow and his brother Brian Whitlow, who is in the U.S. Air Force, in uniform. At the time, Eric Whitlow was stationed in Kuwait.

Gutsch had known Eric Whitlow through marching band and chaperoned his band’s bus, and reached out to his family.

“I was almost glad the other one fell through because (Eric Whitlow) was a student at North Grove, and I had known him when he was in high school in the marching band,” Gutsch said.

Within a month, Gutsch had talked to Whitlow’s family and her students brought in boxes of energy bars, beef jerky, sunflower seeds, nuts, letters and health care items, such as cotton swabs, to ship to Whitlow. He received all four packages just before the end of the year.

“I didn’t get any actual presents from Santa for Christmas,” Whitlow told the second-graders. “I got those boxes you sent me. That’s what I opened for Christmas. You guys were my Santa.”

The students welcomed Whitlow with art projects, a song and hugs. Gutsch created a presentation with photos of him in Kuwait and other countries he’s visited, and Cub Scouts in her class folded a U.S. Marines flag.

The students got the chance to ask Whitlow if he could tell military time, what his medals and stripes mean on his uniform and why he joined the military. Whitlow’s mother Kathy explained that one of the events that influenced him to join the military was the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, Whitlow was a first-grader at North Grove.

Now, Whitlow is back home until March, when he will be stationed in California, but his brother Brian Whitlow was recently deployed to Kuwait through the Air Force. Gutsch’s class now plans to adopt him, too.

“I want my children to learn how to do for others,” Gutsch said of her students. “I think our younger generation is more of a ‘me’ society, and I want them to learn to think of others and serve others more than we are.”