In 2008, Diamond Communication Solution and our staff began to support Honor Flight Chicago (HFC) through volunteer activities that honor our World War II and Korean War veterans. Since that time, Diamond and our employees have continued to work with HFC in numerous ways. In September, we caught up with CEO Mary Pettinato to talk about her organization and what it is doing to say “thank you” to our American war heroes.
Can you tell us about Honor Flight Chicago?
Honor Flight Chicago is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that was founded to recognize America’s senior war veterans. American veterans are one of our greatest treasures — the men and women who answered our nation’s call, especially at times of our greatest need. At Honor Flight Chicago, our mission is to thank and pay tribute to these American heroes by bringing them to Washington, D.C., for a day of honor and remembrance at no cost to them. HFC is currently honoring WWII and Korean War veterans and accepting applications to honor Vietnam veterans for future flights.
Over the years, HFC has flown 75 flights with over 7,000 of these war heroes from the Chicagoland area. These brave men and women represent all services. Until recently, HFC flew only World War II veterans. However, in 2016, we began honoring our Korean War veterans as well. There are an estimated 53,000 World War II and Korean War veterans living in the Chicagoland area — and we want to reach and honor each and every one.
Are you the only organization like this in the country?
No, we are part of a national network that supports local Honor Flights to recognize and honor veterans. However, Honor Flight Chicago has flown more flights with more veterans than any other organization of its kind. And we are the only Honor Flight organization that is still flying WWII veterans.
What was your inspiration for Honor Flight Chicago?
Honor Flight Chicago was started by three other women and me after we had taken our fathers, all World War II veterans, to see the newly constructed World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. The trip was so life-changing for our fathers and ourselves that we started Honor Flight Chicago to help other veterans and their families have this same experience. Two months after we launched HFC, we had a two-and-a-half-year waiting list of veterans!
It has been an incredible nine-year journey. When we started, we traveled with 65 WWII veterans and 40 guardians per Honor Flight. Now, each trip carries 100 to 110 veterans whose average age is 91 for the World War II vets and 85 for the Korean War vets, along with at least 110 guardians, 10 medical staff, and 4 professional photographers and videographers – all dedicated volunteers.
A veteran once told me that his Honor Flight
was the second-best day of his life. The best was
when he came home from the war alive.
Mary Pettinato, Honor Flight Chicago
Can you share with us how many people it takes to get a flight organized and executed in both Chicago and Washington?
It is quite amazing how these volunteers make this all happen. By the time each flight takes off, our 700-plus volunteers have spent 1,500 hours working tirelessly on every detail. These incredibly dedicated volunteers work year-round to raise money for the flights and provide veteran outreach, community and school education, public relations, and logistical support. Without the dedication and commitment of all of our volunteers and donors, we would not be able to deliver on the promise of honoring our senior war veterans.
Between April and October each year, Honor Flight Chicago escorts seven flights from Midway Airport to Washington, D.C. Every flight requires coordinating hundreds of details, from wheelchairs and food to special access to the memorials and police escorts, as well as the unique welcome home. Each one of our flights costs over $100,000 — and we do it all through donations from individuals and our sponsorships.
How did you start working with Diamond Communication Solution?
In 2008, we had several Diamond employees who had been volunteering with HFC in different areas and they offered to bring their professional expertise to help us develop our first professional donor solicitation. Diamond is a professional organization that has helped many nonprofits raise money for their causes, and they felt that they could help us raise more money so we could fly more veterans.
The Diamond team put together a strategy, identified lists of potential donors, and created a direct mail piece that was mailed in 2010. They asked me if I had any people who had given in the past that they could include in the mailing to ask them for another gift. At first I was a little skeptical, but I did end up providing a short list of donors who had been kind enough to help us in the first few years.
So what happened next?
I became the most popular woman on the block! Mail just kept coming in every day, and every day it was filled with checks. Many of them were small gifts of $5 and $10, and I was grateful for every one of them. Then one day, I got a phone call from a gentleman who had made a modest gift in the past. He asked if I had received his letter. I responded that I had not, but the next day, there it was. He had included a check for $220,000 stapled to the letter we had sent!
I was completely astonished by his generosity — and by the power of direct mail. This one gift alone allowed us to fly over 400 veterans, and in the end, he and his wife supported 13 flights!
How has the relationship with Diamond worked for you since that first donor solicitation?
Many of Diamond’s employees continue to volunteer their time and expertise to honor and thank our veterans. Diamond has also just sent another donor solicitation for us, which we hope will be as successful as the first and allow us to fly many more veterans in the years ahead. It is so much more than a business relationship — it is a relationship built on mutual admiration and respect.
What is next for Honor Flight Chicago in the year ahead?
We have just completed our 75th flight, in the year that also marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We now have almost 2,000 Korean War heroes on our waiting list, and pending continued support, we look forward to flying as many senior war veterans as we can between April and October of 2017.
Veteran applications can be found on our website, www.HonorFlightChicago.org
Click the VETERANS button, select HOW TO APPLY, and then download the correct application.
How can people donate to Honor Flight Chicago?
No donation is too small — and 96 cents of every dollar goes directly to honoring our veterans.
Donations are gratefully accepted through the mail or online:
938 W. Montana Street, Chicago, IL 60614-2409
To donate online, go to: http://honorflightchicago.org/mnu-donate