Armed with a shovel under a very warm morning sun, Ivanna Flores, a freshman majoring in nursing at The University of Texas-Pan American, was working hard to clear the planting beds April 17 at the Veterans War Memorial of Texas in McAllen.
Volunteering for the first time in the University's annual United To Serve project, she was one of 75 students, staff and faculty who gave up their Saturday to help clean and beautify the five acre park adjacent to the McAllen Convention Center. The memorial is dedicated to honoring the more than 1.3 million Americans killed and missing in action in all the nation's wars and conflicts.
"I thought it would be really neat to come out here and support other veterans. He is returning in August and would be very proud of me doing this because I don't usually go out and 'dig,'" Flores said.
Working with Flores was Shaney Flores (no relation), a senior majoring in psychology and English, who has participated in past United to Serve projects.
"That feeling of having done something good through all your efforts is a prime motivator for me being out here. I feel empowered and I feel I have benefited my community and that gives me a great feeling and a sense of community as well," he said.
During the daylong project, the tasks tackled by the volunteers, the majority of which were students, included sorting and stacking more than 6,000 bricks from a brickyard onto pallets, trimming and pruning trees, clearing and planting landscaping beds, refinishing the park's statues and granite benches, and airbrushing old memorial pavers where the engraved names were no longer visible.
Held in conjunction with National Volunteer Week, this year April 18-24, the United to Serve initiative was started in 2004 by The University of Texas System to engage students, administrators, faculty and staff in a community project to benefit the 15 plus communities where UT System institutions are located.
Erica Lopez, program coordinator of the Community Service Connection in UTPA's Office of Student Life and Transition Services, said many of the university's students look for ways to volunteer and give back to the community. This particular project was chosen because it targets veterans, Lopez said.
"Veterans are a population who are extremely important to us as a community and sometimes they are overlooked. This is a way to give back in a small way to those who have served our country," she said.
Lopez said the project was organized and conducted in cooperation with Keep McAllen Beautiful and the City of McAllen's Parks and Recreation Department, Public Works Department and the Convention Center. The volunteers from UTPA also worked with the Veterans War Memorial of Texas all volunteer staff including its president retired U.S. Army Colonel Frank Plummer and its site coordinator Eddy Callahan.
Brad Bentsen, City of McAllen parks superintendent, said the city welcomes volunteers to help maintain the site and was amazed about the amount of work that was accomplished by the students.
"This is the first time to have a group this size to come and work here. Giving up their time on Saturday morning says a lot," he said.
Lopez said arrangements are already set for another volunteer group from UTPA to help install the flags that will fly at a Memorial Day ceremony planned at the park. Students who would like to participate can contact the Community Service Connection at 956/381-2659.
The memorial, which has been underway since the 1990s, includes five war sites - World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and an All Wars site. More than 100 granite panels tell stories on each of the conflicts and a number of statues, all created by Doug Clark, a sculptor and part-time lecturer in UTPA's art department, provide a human face. The statute "The Warrior," for example, commemorates the 3,440 Medal of Honor recipients in the U.S. Armed Forces. The memorial relies totally on donations provided by community supporters. Memorial bricks and pavers are available to commemorate loved ones within the memorial site. More information is available at www.mcallen.net/veterans.
As they wrapped up their assigned job for the day of landscaping work, the members of UTPA's Student Veterans Organization formed recently to help students who are veterans transition to campus life and the services available to them, felt pleased with their participation in the United To Serve project. Yoli Munoz, a sophomore majoring in communication disorders, said one of the organization's goals is to do things to help the community but this project was special to them. Munoz is a four-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who served on the USS George Washington off the coast of Iraq.
"This park is extraordinary. This memorial recognizes men and women who have given so much for their country. It is nice to know we have something here in the Valley for our veterans," she said.
Go to the Photo Gallery to see more photos taken during UTPA's United To Serve project.