Since its inception in 2012, Honor Flight Kern County has far exceeded any original expectations in its mission to send World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the nation's war memorials.
On Nov. 1, the nonprofit organization, founded by LiLi Marsh, sent another group of World War II and Korean War veterans on its 31st flight, which was its last for this year. To date, Honor Flight Kern County has sent more than 1,000 veterans, of which 43 were local, on the all-expense paid excursions to the nation's capital.
In the few, short years since its inception, Honor Flights has proven to be the first significant, large-scale attempt to thank the nation's veterans for the sacrifices they made for the country. The fledgling program has since exploded all of its original boundaries as the mission has been altered to include all veterans of all wars in years to come.
According to Tom Stenson, Tehachapi outreach volunteer, each Honor Flight costs approximately $1,500, of which 100 percent is raised through donations and fundraisers and paid for by Honor Flight Kern County. With hundreds more Kern County veterans on the waiting list for future flights, Honor Flight Kern County is faced with the enormous task of raising significant amounts of money to accomplish its mission.
In an effort to keep up with the growth and evolving changes, Honor Flight volunteers began thinking out of the box by introducing a new fundraising effort to Tehachapi which has proven to been a success in Bakersfield.
The "Support Your Local Veteran" wine tasting fundraiser will be held at Souza's Family Vineyard, 26877 Cummings Valley Road, Sunday, Nov. 19, from 2 to 5 p.m. Celebrity bartenders Marty Pay and Mary Beth Garrison will be pouring. A portion of the proceeds will to go to Honor Flights.
"We are going to have a group of veterans at the fundraiser who just attended an Honor Flight, plus hopefully two more Vietnam veterans who are scheduled to go on the Spring 2018 flight," Stenson said. "I will have my little bucket out for any kind of donation."
Stenson said more than 200 Vietnam veterans are on the waiting list for upcoming Honor Flights, however the number of World War II veterans continues to decline with an estimated six remaining in the Tehachapi area who have yet to experience an Honor Flight for a variety of reasons.
In an attempt to provide community outreach to area veterans, Stenson helped organize a breakfast over a year ago to give local veterans the opportunity to socialize with other veterans and get information on the Honor Flight program.
Said Stenson, "Our first breakfast was held at our Veterans Memorial Building on F street. We had 143 veterans and guests attend. I saw that there was not enough parking and access for the older veterans. So, I asked Father Mark if we could use the Hall at St. Malachy Catholic Church for our breakfast as it was larger, had better parking and was better for our older veterans that used wheel chairs, walkers and canes."
With Father Mark's blessing, the hall was first used in February 2016 to host monthly breakfasts.
Said Stenson, "I think that it helped as Father Mark is a Army veteran himself."
Just like the Honor Flight program, the breakfasts have also exceeded original expectations and grown to include anywhere from 80 to 100 veterans, guests and volunteers at each breakfast.
Stenson said he has given out about 50 applications to veterans at the breakfasts who have shown an interest in going on a Honor Flight.
The breakfast is offered free to veterans, and usually held the fourth Saturday of each month from 9 to 11 a.m.
Said Stenson, "I am the MC and my wife greets everyone at the door."
Local Honor Flight guardian (and legend) Rick Zanutto assisted in the success of the breakfast events with his efforts to organize the Bear Valley Springs Veterans Association members who prepare the food and help serve the veterans, said Stenson.