By Janice Chance
When an invitation was extended to the members of the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. (AGSM) Maryland Chapter, seven mothers, a sibling of one of our fallen heroes and I made the decision to participate in the Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake Veterans Build Day. We are a 501(C)(3) national nonprofit Veterans Service Organization comprised of mothers whose children died in military service, died as a result of that service, or are missing in action.
Our mission is finding strength in the fellowship of other Gold Star Mothers who strive to keep the memory of our sons and daughters alive by working to help veterans, those currently serving in the military, their families and our communities. Therefore, participating in the Habitat Chesapeake Veterans Build as a volunteer made the invitation more meaningful. It provided us with another opportunity to fulfill our mission of service in honor of our children who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the United States Armed Forces. All us who volunteered on November 10, 2012 had a child that was killed in action in either Iraq or Afghanistan – our motivation for joining the AGSM.
As I reflect on my volunteer experience that day, the memories warm my heart. It leads me to praise and thank God for creating this wonderful opportunity to serve under the leadership of Director of Community Engagement, Leila Kohler-Freuh and the leadership team of the Habitat Chesapeake.
Shortly after our arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to see such a large group of volunteers. It was a beautiful sight. I was already excited about being able to volunteer, but after seeing this group of willing workers, I became even more excited and anxious to begin. Ms. Kohler-Freuh shared with the AGSM that there were several groups, as well as individuals, who had volunteered that day. I was delighted to hear that the largest group of volunteers was the entire lacrosse team from the Johns Hopkins University, but I was especially gratified when I learned that veterans and active duty members were also volunteers. Also, I was pleasantly surprised when one of the US Air Force airmen that I had met during an Honor Flight mission at the BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport several weeks prior to this build, showed up to volunteer.
My experience and the events of that day will be forever etched in my memory. I never imagined that I would have so much fun and meet so many friendly and interesting people that day. I honestly did not know what to expect, but from the moment that Ms. Kohler-Freuh and her team greeted us, up until the end, it was a series of pleasant surprises. The AGSM participated in block clean up, picking up trash on McCabe Street, assisting with registration; but most of our time was spent as hospitality hostesses. We served the volunteers who were doing the manual labor and/or assisted in other ways. We provided them with water, hot chocolate, cookies and at lunch time we set up and served pizza in addition to assisting with clean up after lunch.
Prior to the start of the work day, the group of volunteers gathered and received instructions regarding duties, rules, policies, precautions and work sight safety from the designated leader. I was then asked, as chaplain for our local chapter, to pray for the safety of the volunteer team and our day in general; as well as giving a few words of thanks and a little pep talk before everyone dispersed to perform their individual duties. I was also given an opportunity—along with another special group of mothers who were participating, A Mothers Cry,—to share briefly about AGSM’s history and activities that we have done to fulfill our mission.
I reiterated our commitment to supporting veterans, active duty military, their families and citizens in the community. The highlight was when I requested that all of the veterans and active members of our military come up to face the group. I then shared with the group what Veterans Day really means and expressed the AGSM’s heartfelt appreciation for their selfless service and sacrifice. This was followed by an expression of thanks and appreciation from the group of volunteers. Additionally, I shared briefly about my late son Captain Jesse Melton III USMC who served in the Marine Corp for 11 years in the US and in several different areas overseas, one which was Iraq. His last deployment was to Afghanistan where he was killed in action while supporting combat operations on September 9, 2008. I also shared about my daughter Jenine Melton, a former US Army Captain that served 8 years and is currently serving as a civilian in Afghanistan in honor of her brother whose desire was to a make a difference. He told me before he left for Afghanistan, “I want to go and change the world.” My love for God, and the desire to honor my son and daughter, is the driving force for my commitment to volunteer.
AGSM was blessed to connect with two of the women from “A Mothers Cry” organization. They are a group of women who lost a child to street violence within their communities versus the AGSM who lost children due to military service. As mothers, although the circumstances of our children’s death were different, we were able to relate to the common pain of losing a child. Our meeting was an unexpected surprise. After hearing each other’s stories, we discussed ways in which we can collaborate on community projects that honor the life and legacy of our children as we serve others. Our meeting was a direct result of our participation in the Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake Veterans Build Day.
I also had the opportunity to talk with many of the other volunteers who shared their reasons for participating and in turn share my own personal journey and reasons for volunteering—the tragic loss of a child. The exchange of conversation flowed naturally; it was like taking with old family and friends. Everyone that I met was kind. We laughed and talked as we performed our volunteer duties. This made my first experience as a Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake volunteer a memorable one that filled my heart with much joy and with the desire to continue volunteering with them.
I can never repay or capture in words my deep thanks and appreciation for being given the opportunity to serve. The word of God is true which says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” I challenge everyone who reads my story to sign up to become a volunteer, do something that will make a difference in the lives of others that will continue even after your passing into eternity. Being a homeowner is a dream of many and you can help make this become a reality for some. I will never forget the time that my family moved out of the Latrobe projects into our first home the year after I graduated from High School. It was a day that is indescribable. My mom had worked hard as a single parent and to witness her dream being fulfilled was one of our family’s happiest moments.
One of my late son’s favorite sayings when he was describing a pleasant experience was “That was sweet,” and that is what I now say about my volunteer experience during the Veterans Day Build.