Jacksonville's Sheila Sparks used much of her pandemic-related downtime, stepping up her already long-held commitment to honouring the sacrifice and memory of veterans.
On Tuesday, July 20, Veterans Affairs Canada and Associate Minister of National Defence Lawrence MacAulay delivered national recognition to Sparks' intense devotion to veterans.
While in New Brunswick's capital to announce federal funding for the Fredericton-based Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, the minister took time to present Sparks with a Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation.
The commendation paid tribute to Sparks' year-long labour-intensive effort to restore 629 Veterans' grave markers at 32 Woodstock-area cemeteries.
It seemed fitting that Sparks became the first individual to accept this honour in person since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of her effort at Woodstock-area cemeteries took place during pandemic shutdowns and strict protocols. Sparks, who was the only New Brunswicker presented with the honour, said it was hard to describe how much the recognition meant to her.
"This presentation to me means that someone has appreciated all the effort I put into these crosses so much that they nominated me for an award that I would never, ever have thought I would be entitled to," she said. "I am honoured and humbled to have received it."
Perhaps Sparks' comments to the River Valley Sun about how and why she undertook the project over the summer of 2020, which marked the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, explains the motivation that eventually led to the July 20, 2021 commendation.
"I cannot think of a better way for me, as the daughter, sister, aunt, niece, cousin and friend of many veterans to commemorate this (date)," Sparks said last summer, as she neared completion of the project. "What I have done, I have done on my own out of respect for veterans and my appreciation of their sacrifices for our freedom."
In announcing the minister's commendation, the department described Sparks' efforts to restore the hundreds of veterans' grave markers as follows:
"On Canada Day 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she noticed that several grave markers in local cemeteries were in need of repair. She decided then and there to take on the task of bringing these markers back into mint condition. On that day, she brought home 18 crosses from her local cemetery and proceeded to pressure wash and paint them as necessary. She then replaced them and also placed a small Canadian flag on them.
"Following this, she visited other local cemeteries and discovered more faded crosses and decided to refurbish these as well. She brought home 629 crosses from 32 cemeteries, and she did it all on her own and at her own expense. At one cemetery, she also spent time cleaning the Veterans' monument by removing the moss from the wording, scrubbing the stone and placing four Canadian flags and solar lights at each corner of the base of the monument."
The commendation also noted Sparks' many other contributions towards veterans.
The July 20 presentation in Fredericton recognized Sparks on a national level, but her dedicated efforts on behalf of veterans did not go unnoticed locally.
Following Woodstock's 2020 Remembrance Day services, the local Royal Canadian Legion Branch 11 and the ANAVETS Unit 95 became the first to officially recognize Sparks' project and its service to veterans. In a ceremony at the large Woodstock Rural Cemetery on Houlton Road, both organizations paid tribute to Sparks.
ANAVETs Unit 95 president Manderville Canam said Sparks' project already gained national attention.
"I got text messages from army friends from as far away as Alberta," said Canam during the Remembrance Day 2020 presentation, adding he hoped Sparks inspired similar efforts across Canada.
Sparks hopes her project encourages similar efforts on cemeteries everywhere.
"If the word about my project spurred even one person to go out to their local cemetery and do the same thing, I would say I must have done something right," she said. "I would love to see all cemeteries — not just veteran's graves — kept up to preserve our local history. Families need to become more involved with helping at local cemeteries."
Branch 11 president Carol McWaid, during her presentation of a plaque to Sparks, praised her efforts to ensure today's and future generations never forget veterans' great sacrifices.
On the day of the Veterans Affairs presentation, Minister MacAuley told the CBC Sparks is an ideal recipient of an award presented to a volunteer who makes significant, sustained and unpaid contributions to the veterans and community.
Although she completed her project, Sparks said she still occasionally restores a marker at the request of a family member.
"I will turn no one away," she said.
The presentation to Sparks was part of the announcement delivering federal financial support to the Gregg Centre at the University of New Brunswick.
MacAuley, accompanied by Fredericton Liberal MP Jenica Atwin, committed $486,000 over three years to support the centre's research and education project on the modern experience of the Canadian Armed Forces.
"As Canadians, it's our responsibility to recognize and pay tribute to the folks who have stepped up to serve our country," MacAuley said. "It doesn't matter what their rank was or where they served — they all have stories that deserved to be told."
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun