As WWII Marine veteran Ted Estridge neared the end of his life, he wanted to share how Christ had helped him overcome alcohol addiction and the trauma he lived through during the war. Finding Christ’s love led him to serve as a missionary among the very people he had resented while he served. Philanthropist Elaine Oakes helped Estridge complete his video testimony in April 2019 through Forever Young Senior Veterans, an organization that helps local veterans heal and gain closure by returning to the places where they had fought.
The filming experience with Estridge gave Elaine an idea — one that she hoped Forever Young Senior Veterans would like as well. “We really wanted them to expand their mission to include preserving veterans’ stories for future generations, but they didn’t want to do that, and that’s ok,” Elaine said. “They do what they do extremely well, and so we decided to start our own organization, Honored Legacies for Veterans. Preserving their legacies and getting them in front of students is a driving force for us.”
Honored Legacies for Veterans began in January 2020 with a mission to document and preserve veterans’ stories for future generations, especially the stories of WWII veterans many of whom are in their 90’s. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports approximately 300,000 WWII veterans are still alive.
With a roster of 80 to 90 veterans from the Korean and Vietnam Wars and 20 to 25 WWII veterans, Elaine, along with her co-founder and board member Chris Batté and board member Larry Vannoy, planned monthly activities and events for local veterans. But just as things were rolling along, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, causing the leadership team to cancel in-person events and find new ways to connect with local veterans.
During the quarantine, volunteers with Honored Legacies for Veterans refocused their priorities to ensure veterans received groceries and cleaning supplies. They held patriot parades, as many as 12 in one day, where various motorcycle or Corvette clubs drove by veterans’ homes. Instead of in-person visits, veterans received phone calls.
“We wanted to keep all of the veterans engaged so they would not feel lonely,” Elaine said.
In addition to monthly events being sidelined, the Legacy Prom, intended to be a large dress-up affair, was postponed. Several businesses helped to raise $20,000 to support the event, which was meant to give veterans the celebration they missed while they were in the service. “Our sponsors are allowing us to keep the money for the event to be used at a later date,” Elaine said.
This fall Honored Legacies for Veterans has amped up its efforts to get as many veterans filmed as possible.
“We have a videographer collecting raw footage and we have filmed 12 to 14 videos in the last month,” Elaine said. “We decided we had to move forward and document as many of our veterans as we could.”
Honored Legacies partnered with Memoirs of WWII to complete the first video featuring WWII veteran Harold McMurran, who was part of the Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy June 6, 1944. “It’s not the kind of thing you ever forget,” McMurran said in the video. “It stays with you.”
The second phase plan for the videos is to allow schools to use them to supplement their lessons. “We’ve had a few focus groups to gather teachers’ input and ideas for lesson plans,” Elaine said.
Although this year altered the new organization’s plans, its efforts did not go unnoticed by the philanthropic community. In September, The Trideum Foundation and Grounds for Hope announced Honored Legacies for Veterans as a nominee for charity of the year. The organization did not win, but one of the organization’s volunteers, Sabrina Agrusa, received the Volunteer of the Year award.
Agrusa prepared meals for and visited with a couple during the early days of the quarantine. Her nomination reads in part, ‘Sabrina is always quick to say ‘yes!’ to fulfill a need, and we’ve always appreciated that about her as a volunteer with Honored Legacies for Veterans, but through Covid-19, boy has she shined!’
The leaders and volunteers of Honored Legacies for Veterans have adjusted their plans and persevered to accomplish its mission in its first year. Plans for veteran outreach and filming videos will continue and for Veterans Day, they hope to have a few small gatherings. Meanwhile as the holiday season approaches, the organization is working to complete its 2021 Veterans Calendar, which features photos and brief biographies of local veterans, by Christmas.
“We had so many events planned this year, and of course we’re disappointed that they had to be canceled. But we’re blessed to be able to do the work we do for our veterans and grateful to them for sharing their stories with us,” Elaine said.