Hearing Our Heroes: NY High School Students Listen to Veterans

PHOTO: A Staten Island student, Sean Egan, founded Hearing Our Heroes, a service organization where high school students visit veterans.PlayABC News
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Diane Egan will tell you that her son Sean, now a junior in high school on Staten Island in New York, was always on a mission -- that from the time he was small, he was "always busy thinking of things to do, always thinking of ways to help other people."

She'll also tell you that when she looks at Sean, she sees the best of his dad in him.

"Dad" is Fire Capt. Martin Joseph Egan, Jr., who died serving New York City on 9/11. Sean, who was five when he lost his dad, remembers going fishing with him and attending firehouse Christmas parties.

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"Every time I meet someone that worked with him, they always tell me how he was a great man, a great leader," Sean, 16, said. "He was only 35 or 36 when he became captain in the New York City Fire Department."

His mother remembers her husband as "kind, sweet, caring, considerate. And I see all those qualities in Sean."

So last December, when Sean came to his mom and asked for a ride to a local veterans' hospital, she wondered what her young son on a mission was up to.

"Oh, we're just going to go over there and talk to the veterans," he told her.

A family friend had actually suggested to Sean that he and some friends volunteer at the Brooklyn Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the nearby neighborhood of Bay Ridge, in New York's Brooklyn borough.

Fast forward one year, and Sean is now president of Hearing Our Heroes, a group of some 100 students from Monsignor Farrell High School. Their mission? To "serve those who served for us," said Sean.

"We're trying to listen to the needs of our local veterans," Sean, a lanky blonde, told ABC News. "We're trying to listen to their stories. We're trying to listen to how we can thank them."

Among those Sean and the other members of Hearing Our Heroes are listening to is Nick Mazzella, a veteran who recalled returning from Vietnam to a country that didn't seem very interested in listening to him.

"I'm recognized because I quite frequently wear the vest with the big Marine Corps logo on the back," he told ABC News.

Now, thanks to the young men from Hearing Our Heroes, "it's nice to have people thank me for what I did after years of hiding, so to speak."

Said Sean, "I don't think we'll ever understand how much these men sacrificed for us, but we can really try."

And try they do. Hearing Our Heroes members have shoveled snow, held fundraising bake sales and clothing drives, hosted barbecues, and visited hospitals and care centers.

This fall, parts of Staten Island were hard hit by superstorm Sandy and the group has been helping veterans clean up their homes and, in general, recover from the storm.

In October, 19 of them spent the day in Washington, D.C., where they visited injured servicemen at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, listening to their stories and handing out FDNY and NYPD T-shirts.

"After 9/11, all I knew was that my father was killed by very bad men who hated this country and that maybe there would be more attacks like that," Sean told a Staten Island Advance reporter after the trip. "But thanks to these servicemen and women, there weren't."

Vito Fossella, Jr., a former congressman from Staten Island and enthusiastic supporter of Hearing Our Heroes, told ABC News the group is "an outgrowth of not just honoring veterans but of 9/11. 9/11 hit this town very hard, we lost a lot of young men and women in those towers and in the hours afterward."

Fossella recognized these teenagers "could be doing a lot of different things -- X-box, and video games, and hanging out with their friends, and everything under the sun -- or doing nothing." But they've chosen to spend many hours helping "the group of people that have kept this country free for more than 200 years."

They have kept this country free, yes, but they may have trouble asking for and accepting help for themselves.

"The big problem with vets, there are a lot of them that will not accept help because they're too proud," said Mazzella. "I tell them, 'Let the kids help. Swallow a little bit of that pride.'"

Sean Egan's next step?

"You know, we've done a lot on Staten Island but Staten Island is a very small part of the United States of America," he said.

He hoped to spread Hearing Our Heroes to more schools, "hopefully all over the country."

Mazzella hoped it goes nationwide, "because it would be a big boost to veterans across the country, knowing that other people do care."

The Vietnam vet in the USMC jacket has high hopes for Sean.

"I see this kid as being some kind of politician and a leader of some kind, making a big difference somewhere," Mazzella said. "He's got my vote, and I'll back him 100 percent."

But the backing would come with one caveat, he added: "That is, if I get on the list of him shoveling snow for me."

Kidding aside, Mazzella called the students "a group of outstanding young men. ... It's nice to know that the country is gonna be in good hands when I get older."

As for Sean, he likes the smiles on the faces of the vets when he and his friends listen to their stories and help them with whatever the older generation feels needs to be done. Maybe, he said, "they look back and think, 'You know, this is what I fought for. I fought for future generations.'"