It took Paula Burton 13 years but she finally achieved her goal—to get all Americans to place their hands over their hearts at the same time.
The Pledge of Allegiance no longer seemed to be getting its share of rightful attention, Burton thought, especially with school-age children.
“Meeting someone who really embraces the pledge stepped up our attitude (of patriotism),” says Kathleen DeLuca, who first met Burton through Celebration USA, a Burton-led committee advancing the cause of educating young people about good citizenship and patriotism. “Paula really touched my children’s lives.”
That’s Burton’s way of giving back to all the people who have touched her life over the years—like the Americans who dropped food over Holland during World War II, so that the Dutch (including Burton and her family) would have enough to eat.
Relating this story at the National School Celebration, held Oct. 12 last year in Villa Park, Calif. (pop. 5,999), Burton had to pause to rein in her emotions. Just a month and a day after the terrorist attacks on the East Coast, Americans were again dropping food so that civilians in a war-torn country would have enough to eat.
Burton, 61, was not on the receiving end this time. Instead, she was expressing her gratitude to her adopted country in a way she’d dreamed of for years: by holding a “Pledge Across America.”
At 11 a.m. Pacific Time on the 12th, Burton led members of her Villa Park community in the Pledge of Allegiance, while at that exact moment, students and teachers across the country—even President Bush himself—also recited the vow. It was a moment Burton had worked toward for more than 13 years.
“I’ve never given up on this national day of celebration,” she says.
In 1988 Burton, then working as a substitute teacher, discovered how few children really comprehend the Pledge of Allegiance. “The children had a lack of understanding, and that created a lack of reverence,” says the retired teacher and grandmother of three. “I put the word ‘indivisible’ on the board, and began teaching the whole pledge.”
Always one to wear her patriotism on her sleeve, Burton—a U.S. resident since age 9, when her parents came to America to seek new opportunities and a fresh start—discovered the pledge had originally been written for a national school celebration in 1892.
As her knowledge grew, so did her determination to share it—and how better to do that than through another national school celebration? By 1991, Burton had coordinated her Celebration USA to help organize the event. A year later, she mailed out 67,000 letters to public school districts across the country, asking them to celebrate the pledge’s centennial, but she was unable to synchronize the event nationwide.
Celebration USA continued to grow, however, and so did its reputation—although the last three years, during which the Burtons’ daughter, Brandy, suffered from a terminal illness, proved a struggle to move forward. Since Brandy’s death last June, Burton has become even more absorbed in Celebration USA. “I stay busy translating the ideals of the country my family adopted,” she says.
Suddenly last October, Burton received a call from the U.S. Department of Education, which had become increasingly aware of Celebration USA’s efforts in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Burton was told she had one week to organize a National School Celebration in her community, which became the West Coast hub of the national celebration.
“I didn’t capitalize on a crisis, yet it was a crisis that had to bring it into place,” she says. “One teacher wrote, ‘As God would have it, a vessel of comfort was in place for our children.’ Being part of that vessel of comfort started with a teaching moment.”