Two local students will be part of a small group chosen to travel to France this summer to help restore American battle trenches from World War I.
Called “Digging into History: World War 1 Trench Restoration in Seicheprey, France,” the program is the first of its kind, sponsored by the Connecticut Heritage Foundation, on behalf of the Connecticut State Library, and in cooperation with the village of Seicheprey and Communauté de communes Mad et Moselle.
For Joseph Viski, of Durham, and Daniella Lebron, of North Haven, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity neither can contain their excitement about.
Lebron, a sophomore at Engineering and Science University Magnet School, said she was helping teach middle schoolers when she found out she had been selected for the program.
“I’m standing in front of a classroom … I just started laughing and was like ‘wait, really?’ I couldn’t really express it as much as I wanted,” Lebron said. “I was just kind of laughing and squealing into my sweater … it was definitely exciting.”
When she got home and shared the news with her parents, they started crying out of joy and she said she couldn't stop talking about the honor for at least a week.
Viski had a little more room to express his excitement, since he was home when he found out. “I was just so overcome … I was thrilled,” he said.
His former history teacher and one of his letter of recommendation writers, Anthony Pulino, said Viski came to school the next day beaming.
“He’s really excited and we're really excited for him and I think it's going to be a life-changing experience,” Pulino said.
During the 20-day trip, the group of 15 Connecticut students will spend time restoring the trenches Americans used during the battle, and also get to explore French culture through working with French students, taking culinary courses and other activities. They will spend the last four days or so exploring Paris.
For each student chosen to participate, the opportunity had a slightly different appeal.
In Lebron’s case, the trenches themselves and the engineering behind them are fascinating. As a kid, she was drawn to playing with Legos and building things, so the opportunity to work in a trench that has been standing for about 100 years is “extremely cool” she said.
“I’ve always been interested in the makeup and how they’ve been able to sustain their structure,” Lebron said. “Now I get to learn the stories of the men who built them first.”
For Viski, the chance to restore something with historical significance is particularly special. “I know for a fact that I will never be able to restore an actual trench again, this is such a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said.
Viski said he first realized a passion for history when his Boy Scout troop visited the Gettysburg National Battlefield when he was in fifth grade. Intrigued by the thought of being in a place where an event so significant occurred, and seeing the things left behind from it, he started learning more and soon built up a collection of his own war memorabilia.
Since then, Viski has collected some 30 gas masks, three uniforms and a variety of equipment and medals and presented his collection to fellow students at Coginchaug Regional High School.
The village of Seicheprey is where the first German offensive against American troops during World War I took place, on April 20, 1918.
Connecticut troops from the 102nd Infantry Regiment came under fire as the German forces attacked. The battle raged throughout the day and left both sides with many losses, and the village destroyed.
Before the three-week trip itself, the students will meet several times as a group to learn about the history of the project and even get a crash course in French.
“I can already tell that we’re going to be a big family,” Lebron said.
A donation page has been set up where people can contribute to the students as a whole or to a particular student. Viski’s family also set up a personal GoFundMe. The group donation page can be found at the Connecticut State Library Transactions website. Also, donations can be mailed to Connecticut Heritage Foundation at 231 Capitol Ave. in Hartford.
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