HISTORY OF VILLAGES HONOR FLIGHT
In 2011 the closest Honor Flight Hub to The Villages was based in Ocala (OHF). Their policy was to give priority to Veterans living in and around Ocala.
A local resident had just returned from an OHF mission and questioned whether or not the area in and around The Villages area could support its own hub. After meeting with some of the OHF volunteers who lived in this area they became convinced that The Villages area could support an Honor Flight Hub especially given the high number of Veterans here. They were also convinced that these areas could financially support such an organization.
This group applied for a charter from the National Honor Flight organization and in July 2011 they were initially given responsibility to service Veterans in the Lake, Sumter and southern Marion County areas. This new hub was to be called Villages Honor Flight with the intent to focus attention to this geographical area. The intent was to not call this hub The Villages Honor Flight. This confusion tends to impact this hub to this day. OHF agreed to supply the names of any Veterans from these areas that they had on the waiting list and to mentor and provide assistance.
The initial planning began in the fall of 2011 and focused on following the model used by OHF which was to fly a charter of 150 Veterans and to fly in the Spring of 2012. Significant effort was focused on identifying potential participating Veterans and fund raising.
The American Legion Post 347, being a 501 (c) 19 nonprofit, agreed to serve as the fiscal agent for VHF – all monies went to the American Legion and bills were submitted to them for payment.
Community fundraising also began in the fall of 2011. Consistent with the OHF model, donations for specific vets were accepted to guarantee that those specific vets would fly. This concept was found to be unmanageable.
Even more difficult than the financial position was the operational understanding of how to manage such an undertaking. No one in the organization had any experience in the planning aspects for an organization like this.
February 2012 turned out to be a very crucial month for VHF. A representative from the National organization met with a small group of volunteers who were able to commit the time needed to successfully continue. A leadership team, now the Management Team, was formed and it was decided that a flight of 25 vets and 25 guardians was much more realistic than a charter. We had neither the money nor the expertise to execute a charter flight. So with 25 free tickets from Southwest Airlines and guardian fees, we were financially able to execute a 25/25 flight and it was scheduled for May of that year.
The pre-flight meetings for Mission 1 were held at the American Legion and St Timothy’s Church. Procedures were developed to manage these preflight meetings.
Although this flight was small, the facilities for pre-flight meetings were cramped and congested. We petitioned The Villages Recreation Department for special dispensation and they allowed the use of their facilities. Preflight meetings were quickly moved to the Colony Cottage Recreation Center.
A Villages social club called Villages Honor Flight was formed with meetings being held at Saddlebrook Recreation Center to raise interest in those wanting to become involved. It also had the extra benefit of getting VHF into the Rec center infrastructure legally (as a true club). The purpose of the Club is to provide a forum to introduce the public to VHF and act as a source of working volunteers.
Early in the process it was determined that there was too much required of one person, the Flight Director, so an MXO (Mission Executive Officer) was developed as the second in command and the person who would share many of the Flight Director’s duties and be able to step in if necessary for the Flight Director.
VHF planned four missions in 2012; however, Mission 4, the last of the year, was canceled due to Hurricane Sandy.
VHF applied for and received an IRS 501 (c) 3 non-profit status. VHF was reorganized into something similar to a real business; the leadership group was divided into a Board of Directors with long term policy responsibility and a Management Team with day-to-day responsibilities under the President. The Management Team was formally identified in the By-Laws. However, the BOD and the Management Team leaders were basically the same individuals with no defined separation of responsibilities.
That year VHF completed seven missions to Washington and learned that this number exceeded the capabilities of our volunteer base as well as facility availability.
Following a military tradition to acquire and use “challenge coins”, VHF procured a “5 service” coin that is still
presented to all the Veterans.
Another first that year was the annual VHF golf outing.
It was determined that a number of Veterans were unable to participate in an Honor Flight because of the physical requirements of the length of the missions. The first of the VHF “flightless Honor Flights” was held in September and has been successful ever since. We were the first in the country to have such an event and have assisted other hubs in executing similar events.
Guardian fees were reduced to make this experience more affordable to more people.
That year was the first attempt to conduct missions with more that 25 Veterans. There were two missions with 49 Veterans.
In October, VHF established another first, a flightless program conducted inside a Florida State Prison.
VHF honored our 500 Veteran.
VHF completed its first sponsored mission.
VHF initiated a flight management training program such that people were formally trained for the several rungs of the flight management ladder and would logically progress up the ladder.
In June, VHF mounted another first, a flightless program conducted entirely inside a local assisted living facility (Lexington Park). Based on the efforts required by the volunteers to execute events such as this, it was decided that in the future we would develop ways to get these Veterans to our flightless program rather than bringing the program to them.
The Villages Homeowners Association identified VHF as one of the three outstanding organizations in 2015/2016.
VHF established the AVATAP (Any veteran, any time, any place) program. This program prioritizes Veterans on the waiting list based on service period.
VHF flew our first charter on Mission 37 in October.
VHF honored our 1,000 Veteran.
VHF reorganized forming an independent Board of Directors with the responsibility of setting strategic goals and direction. A separate Management Team, led by the Hub President, who reports to the BOD, is charged with the day-to-day operations and carrying out the directives of the Board.
Due to a huge increase in the number of Veterans on the waiting list, VHF raised the eligibility age of Veterans applying for a Washington flight to 80 years.
Due to COVID, we flew only one mission which was our fiftieth and was a charter with 66 Veterans.
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