It started a couple of years ago with a school project.
Justin Peterson, now 12, interviewed 10 World War II veterans in his Chewelah, Wash., hometown. “I like learning about history,” he said.
But after hearing their gripping stories, he wanted to do more than just a school project – he wanted to make a difference in the lives of local veterans.
Peterson decided to raise enough money to send a WWII veteran on an Honor Flight. Inland Northwest Honor Flight takes local war veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials honoring their service and sacrifice.
Last week Peterson’s fundraising efforts were recognized with the Safeco Community Hero award, resulting in a total of $15,000 for Inland Northwest Honor Flight.
That big check had small beginnings. Peterson said, “I wanted to raise $600 because that’s what it cost at the time to send a veteran. My parents said, ‘That’s a great idea. We’ll help!’ ”
He launched a letter-writing campaign, targeting local businesses and civic organizations. “I probably sent out 100 letters – telling my story and what I wanted to do. Some people replied and sent money.”
The favorable response prompted him to hold his first annual Nacho Feed in March 2010. “Me, Dad, Mom and my grandparents did it all. It was donation only and we raised $1,000!”
By the time he was done fundraising for that year, he’d far surpassed his $600 goal. As of April 2010, he’d generated $4,854.05. “I came to the Spokane Airport and presented the check to Tony Lamanna.”
Lamanna is director of Inland Northwest Honor Flight.
Since then, Peterson said, “I go to the airport every Honor Flight and meet the guys.” While there he sells $5 red, white and blue wristbands with the proceeds going to the organization.
In July 2011, Peterson went on an Honor Flight. He was able to be with World War II veterans as they saw the memorial in their honor for the first time. “It was amazing,” he said.
Currently, he’s gearing up for his fourth Nacho Feed. “Every year it’s grown,” he said. And so have his fundraising goals. “My goal was to raise $50,000 by the time I graduate from high school – but it looks like I may reach that by eighth grade.”
Lamanna has been amazed by Peterson’s focus and dedication.
“It’s truly phenomenal that a kid his age really gets it,” he said. “He recognizes the sacrifices these vets have made. Instead of playing video games he’s out there making a big difference.”
And the funds have never been more needed. Earlier this year the Spokane organization learned it would no longer receive free airfare from Southwest Airlines. Southwest still provides tickets to Honor Flight, but the national organization decided to give those tickets to new hubs.
With 160 local World War II vets on the waiting list, Lamanna worried the funds wouldn’t be available to send them. However, his fears have been relieved. “God bless this community,” he said. “This (Nov. 2) flight is our fourth this year – completely self-funded. As of right now we have enough money for at least two flights this spring.”
The organization has taken 558 Inland Northwest veterans to Washington, D.C. The trip now costs about $850 per person.
Peterson has adjusted his fundraising goal accordingly. “I thought $50,000 was way out there, but my new goal is $100,000 by the time I graduate,” he said. “I want to keep fundraising until every World War II vet has an opportunity to go on an Honor Flight. They need to get back there before it’s too late.”