Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Mercer.
For Ottawa Hills residents, Sean Mercer is as strongly associated with the nation’s capitol as any of those traditional names. And that’s because for 20 years, the junior high American and world history teacher has been a chaperone or program leader of the annual eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C. The tradition continues May 14 when 92 eighth graders journey in buses for four days of adventure and education.
“The best part is that we take a new group each year. Many have never stayed away from home without their parents and most have never been to D.C.,” Mr. Mercer said. “I love getting to help guide them through and around our nation’s capital and help them learn about our nation’s great history.”
The trip itinerary is not for the faint of heart. Typical attractions visited include memorials (Lincoln, Korean War, FDR, Dr. King, Jefferson, World War II, 911 Pentagon), museums (African American History & Culture, Holocaust, Smithsonian, National Archives), and buildings (Capitol, Ford’s Theatre, White House, Supreme Court, Washington Monument.) To and from Washington, they visit the Gettysburg Battlefield and Flight 93 National Memorial. (Your student, however, is most likely to remember the group’s trip to the Medieval Times Dinner Theater or watching “Shear Madness” at the Kennedy Center.)
“We always rotate the places we visit, so the itinerary is always changing,” said Mr. Mercer. “Plus, D.C. is always adding new attractions as well.”
With 19 trips under his belt, the memories are plenty. Some stay because of their simple elegance: hearing military Taps or “Amazing Grace” on a soldier’s bugle at the Vietnam Wall. Others are special for different reasons:
- Whenever an OH student has been selected to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (a rare opportunity).
- 2004: Local Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, who introduced the legislation creating the World War II Memorial after being approached by a local veteran, leading the group on a private tour of the memorial before it was officially opened to the public.
- 2014: Meeting Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who took many questions from students, an exchange made possible through the D.C. connections of Village resident Dara Musher-Eizenman.
- 2018: Ottawa Hills graduate and resident Mark Wagoner helping to organize a night tour of The Capitol with local Congressman Bob Latta.
The trip’s origins began in 1994 after an Agora trip to Washington, D.C., that he and fellow first-year teacher John Lindsay organized. (Agora is the district’s bi-annual educational event.) The experience made him feel as if junior high students – Agora was then just for high school students – were missing out on memorable educational experiences. “I wanted to do something for them. The eighth graders were going to Chicago each year, but I wanted them to have something more educational. So I thought, ‘Why not Washington, D.C.?’”
Eventually, a trip was organized and inaugurated in 1999. High school principal Jim Yockey served as the first program leader and he led the annual trip until 2002. “Jim was retiring and he brought the D.C. files and notes to my room, put them on my desk, and said ‘You’re in charge,’” Mr. Mercer recalled.
After the first six years, the district hired a tour company (World Strides) to provide logistical expertise. “That was a major improvement. Everything became much more organized and detail oriented; the trip really evolved with their expertise,” Mr. Mercer said.
Before joining Ottawa Hills in the fall of 1994, Mr. Mercer taught three years in the Arcanum- Butler School District northwest of Dayton. He earned his bachelor’s from the University of Toledo and master’s from Lourdes University.
When not teaching, Mr. Mercer also is involved with students as coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team. His teams have won 11 Toledo Area Athletic Conference championships since he became coach in 2001 and been ranked in the Top 20 of the Associated Press state girls’ basketball poll three times. This year, the team finished as TAAC co-champs; his contributions earned him the TAAC “Coach of the Year” award (his record 10th time winning the honor).
He makes community-service projects a yearly commitment for his players, because he believes they “benefit greatly, academically and emotionally, from volunteering their time to make their community and world a better place.”
Starting in 2008, the team began an annual “Hoops for a Cause” home game fundraiser to raise money for cancer research. “This was something I started to honor my mother Judy, who passed away in 2008 from lung cancer. We have continued that tradition each year since,” Mr. Mercer said. To date, the students have raised and donated nearly $30,000.
The service commitment extends to individuals as well as the team. Two members of this year’s team – sophomores Abby Dewhirst and Abbie Westmeyer – were named as top student fundraisers by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. (They teamed with former OH student and still-Village resident Grace VanSlooten.)
In addition to fundraising, the team volunteers at non-profit groups. Those groups have included the Josina Lott Residential & Community Center; the Cherry Street Mission and St. Paul’s Community Center (where they made meals to feed the homeless); Toledo Blankets for Love (helped make blankets to distribute to those in need); Hannah’s Socks (donated socks to those in need); and The Ronald McDonald House (cooked meals, made desserts, and helped decorate for the holidays and worked with young children creating fun crafts).