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Volunteer Experience Takes Off in Support of Kentucky Veterans

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A little more than a year ago, a small group of students from Eastern Kentucky University’s Aviation Program arrived at Blue Grass Airport with the understanding they would be helping a local organization setup for an event to honor veterans. The instructions were simple: show up, volunteer for a few hours, and go home. Little did the students know, however, just how profound of an impact those few hours would have on their careers and ultimately their lives.

Each year, Honor Flight Kentucky flies hundreds of veterans to Washington D.C. for one day to see their memorials, at no cost to them. Veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War are all eligible to participate on the flights.  The flights are widely viewed as a “once in a lifetime experience” for the veterans, many of whom have never received such recognition for their service and as it turns out, volunteers are often left with the same impressions.

“Honor Flight was an organization I had enjoyed working with for a number of years,” said Kyle Knezevich, Assistant Professor in the Aviation Program at EKU. “When the airport said they might have an opportunity to get students involved with their events, I couldn’t sign us up fast enough. The only question that remained was how the students would respond.”

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That response, says Knezevich, has been overwhelming. To date, more than 100 aviation students have volunteered for the flights, which typically occur three times each year and can attract crowds of more than 2,000 visitors to the airport on top of their normal operations. That, according to senior Adam Ackermann, is exactly the kind of experience students need before they head off to a career in aviation.

“A lot of planning goes on beforehand to make it all possible. Parking plans and shuttles need to be arranged, crowd control in place, and coordination with TSA and the affected airline schedules can be tricky,” says Ackermann. “Being able to see and assist airport staff with this coordinated effort will help me when I work for an airport after graduation.” Ackermann is also the president of the student chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) at EKU, which coordinates the student volunteer efforts for each flight.

Once plans are in place, students organize volunteers and coordinate shifts to make sure that all of the event’s needs are met. On the day before the flight, the first students arrive at the airport to begin assisting with the setup of the terminal, which includes taking delivery of tables, chairs, and dozens of wheelchairs for the veterans traveling the next day. Travis Crilly, Operations Manager at the airport even notes how in some cases, students have taken on leadership roles for the event with little or no immediate supervision. “Student volunteers have filled critical task gaps and even served in lead roles where they successfully managed specific special event positions with limited or no direction from airport staff. That helps our efficiency as a staff.”

When the day of the flight finally arrives, the veterans depart Lexington with little to no idea of the welcome home celebration that will take place when they return. As the afternoon sets in, the student volunteers begin to arrive and the work begins once again. The group has just hours to prepare for the veteran’s arrival and no details are left to chance. Teams of students are assigned to manage parking and shuttle operations while thers work alongside airport personnel in the terminal to finalize the setup and welcome visitors.

Dustin Haubner, another senior aviation student volunteer and intern at the airport says which job they are assigned doesn’t make a difference, but the effort does. “No matter the job, it has been one of the most rewarding things I have done since I came to EKU. Alongside my peers, I have been able to give back in a very small way, to those who have done so much for our country. We would do anything for this group and these veterans”

Then it happens. The highly anticipated arrival is met with cheers and applause from the thousands in attendance. Family members of the veterans, local organizations, and members of the public all form a reception line the length of the terminal concourse where they display signs, salute, and shake the hands of the arriving heroes.

Christian Nelson, Operations Supervisor for the airport and a graduate of the EKU Aviation Program notes that while the students’ help with setup and logistics is important, they are also accomplishing much more in their efforts. “Many times the EKU students are the first and last seen by the attendees so their positive attitudes can make a lasting impression,” he says. “It makes our job much easier when we know we can always rely on EKU to be there."

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Once the celebration comes to a close, the students jump back into action assisting veterans and visitors back to their vehicles, stowing supplies, and getting the terminal spaces ready for another day of operations in the morning.

“They are smiling from start to finish,” says Knezevich. “No one has ever complained about the work because I think they understand what they are doing for these veterans. They take the success of this event personally and that is a powerful thing to watch.”

Looking ahead to 2020, the group already has their sights set on the next Honor Flight in May with the potential for even more next fall.

“It’s not about us, just about giving back to the community,” suggests Clay Rogers, one student has volunteered for each of the flights since the partnership began. “These men and women have done so much to keep our country free, it’s the least we could do.”

Honor Flight has also praised the partnership with the EKU student volunteers.

“No university has given Honor Flight more support than the students at Eastern Kentucky University,” said Jeff Hohman, President of Honor Flight Kentucky. “Their passion and patriotism has been an inspiration to all of us at Honor Flight Kentucky. We can’t thank them enough for caring for our veterans.”

For more information on EKU Aviation, visit www.aviation.eku.edu.

Published on November 11, 2019

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