A New Brunswick woman was presented the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation on Tuesday for her work to restore crosses at hundreds of veterans' graves.
Sheila Sparks, who lives in Jacksonville, just north of Woodstock, travelled to 32 cemeteries last summer and collected veterans' crosses that had fallen into disrepair.
Spending her own time and money, she repaired the crosses at her home and repainted each one before returning them to the soldiers' graves.
She restored a total of 629 crosses.
In recognition of her efforts, Lawrence MacAulay, the federal minister of veterans affairs, awarded her the commendation at a ceremony at the University of New Brunswick.
"I don't know if I can actually describe what it means to me personally," Sparks said. "It's just very, very humbling and I never, ever expected it. It's the only thing I can say — it's just a very huge honour for me."
The commendation is awarded to a volunteer who makes significant, sustained and unpaid contributions to the veterans community, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That described Sparks's efforts exactly, according to MacAulay.
"I know these people do not do this for the award," he said. "But it's important that people realize that the country wants to say, 'Thank you' to the people that went above and beyond to make sure our veterans are treated properly."
Sparks received the award in front of a gathering of politicians, military members, and veterans. She is the first recipient to receive the award in person since the start of the pandemic.
"It means a lot to myself as a veteran," said Ken Sercerchi, a former U.S. marine who served in the Vietnam War and is now a member of the board of directors of the Woodstock Rural Cemetery, where Sparks restored crosses.
"It was a passion of love, and I just feel so very proud that an individual such as Sheila would do this," he said.
Sercerchi said that since the completion of Sparks's project, the cemetery looks much better, and it's now easy to identify where veterans are buried.
"Almost half of those people that she put crosses on, I knew," said Sercerchi, who was warded the commendation in 2010 for his own volunteer work with veterans.
"So I look at these stones that have been fixed, and these crosses, and my heart fills with pride because I know those guys that are buried down there are smiling."