Ask any of the kids at Melody Village Junior School to describe what Cpl. Victoria Kovatchev means to them and they answer simply, in one word.
“Hero,” Nicholas Blackman and Alexis Nelles, both 10, said Friday morning of Kovatchev, a Rexdale native who just returned from her first tour of duty in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 15.
Kovatchev was given a hero’s homecoming celebration – complete with an honour guard and bag piper, as well as plenty of flag waving and song singing – Friday at Melody Village, the school she went to for daycare and kindergarten.
As Kovatchev marched into the school’s gymnasium at the beginning of the school day, all 310 Melody Village students stood at attention, waving mini flags at her safe arrival home. And when the kids sang along to O Canada, Kovatchev broke down in happy tears through her salute.
“It’s overwhelming, but in a good way – in a very good way,” she said.
For the last nine months while she served overseas, Melody Village’s staff, students and surrounding community have banded together to send their “hero” 25 care packages full of letters of thanks, pictures, goodies and gifts.
Those boxes, Kovatchev said, were the highlight of her tour.
“I wanted to tell you guys that all the letters you wrote me, the pictures you drew me and the gifts you sent were the best part of my tour,” she told the red-and-white clad, flag-waving students at Friday’s assembly.
“When I was sad, when I was down, and when things got really, really hard in Afghanistan, reading some of the things you guys wrote and looking at pictures you drew of me really brightened my day. I put them all over my room and all over my workshop, and I wanted you guys to know how much it meant to me.”
Friday marked Kovatchev’s second visit to Melody Village this year. Her first meeting with the students was shortly before she shipped out on Feb. 29, when she came to visit her nephew – then a student at the school – and all of his classmates.
“Two weeks before I deployed, I came and I went class to class and met everyone. They sent me away with a whole bunch of candy and goodies,” Kovatchev said. “Then, when I was only (in Afghanistan) for a month or so, I got my first six boxes, followed by waves of more boxes full of goodies and toys.”
The Melody Village Care packages not only brightened Kovatchev’s day, but also those of the other soldiers she worked alongside as a mechanic in Kabul.
“It was the biggest highlight of our morale...everyone was excited when I got mail because it was for everyone. I would open up the boxes, and I would make the boys open up the boxes with me,” the Richview Collegiate grad recalled with a smile on her face. “Cookies and candies and cakes – you couldn’t get that kind of stuff over there, so it was definitely the highlight.”
Kovatchev said the toys the students sent along in the care packages were also much appreciated by the Afghan children and the local orphanage she donated them to.
Melody Village teacher Louise Foster-Martin – known affectionately to the kids as Mrs. FM – said “Corporal Victoria” is the third such soldier the school has ‘adopted’ as their own. The first was “Capt. Canada,” a solider from Quebec, and the second was “Major Jim.”
Her students, Foster-Martin said, have taken a keen interest in their soldiers and were overjoyed when they heard that Kovatchev had returned home safely.
“Today we have come together with our ribbons, our Canadian flags and our Canadian spirit to celebrate the homecoming of Cpl. Victoria,” she said during Friday’s homecoming. “Your bravery on behalf of Canada cannot be measured by words. We are very proud of you and we pay tribute to you today with this homecoming celebration. You are a Canadian hero and we welcome you home.”
In addition to being serenaded with Mariah Carey’s Hero, waving along to K’naan’s Wavin’ Flag and dancing with the kids to Kool and the Gang’s Celebration, Kovatchev was also presented with a veritable treasure trove of gifts: Olympic memorabilia, Canadian flag luggage, movie vouchers, restaurant gift certificates, and – the highlight – a pair of tickets to attend the ballet of her choice at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where she now lives.
But for Kovatchev, the biggest gift is simply being back in Canada, surrounded by loved ones.
“It was different over there – difficult. But I’m home now,” she said, smiling through tears.