More than 160 military personnel will be home for Christmas this year thanks to New Jersey Knights of Columbus.
Through the Knights’ “Send a Hero Home for the Holidays” program, military service members stationed at bases in New Jersey are provided with round trip transportation costs whether by air, train, bus or automobile. This year they have already processed 164 applications, meaning that since the program’s inception more than 500 active military will have been able to travel home for the holidays.
The program is part of the Knights of Columbus’ proud tradition of serving those who serve. During World War I, the Knights provided troops with recreation huts, and after the war with education programs and job placement. Today, Knights annually send hundreds of military personnel and their caregivers to the Marian shrine in Lourdes, France, for a time of rest, prayer, and healing.
Local K of C councils and assemblies in New Jersey contribute funds for the Christmastime project through fundraisers, private donations, and partnerships with local businesses and non-profit organizations.
Tom Ponting, a member of Lawrence Council 7000, oversees the application process. He hears from many military personnel who are very thankful to have received assistance from the Knights. Last year he received a particularly touching phone call.
The father and mother of one Marine had been saving all year to be able to afford to bring their son, a 19-year-old Marine, home for the holiday. They purchased a plane ticket for him, but were unaware that their son had applied to the Send a Hero Home for the Holidays program, and that he had asked that the money be sent directly to his parents.
When the father received a check for $850 in the mail, he called Tom Ponting to ask if he was the person who sent the check. When Ponting confirmed, the man broke down in tears.
“He said, ‘You have returned all of that money to us and I can’t tell you how important that is to us, and what a phenomenal Christmas we’re going to have because of your generosity,’” Ponting said.
“He said, ‘He’s our oldest, he’s our firstborn, I know he’s a 19-year-old Marine and technically a man, but he’s still our little boy.’”
In another story, one serviceman didn’t expect to be able to go home for the holiday at all. When the Knights sponsored him, he took full advantage of his time at home by asking his girlfriend to marry him. Rather than belaboring the engagement, they got married while he was home.
The New Jersey Knights say that this kind of work is simply what Knights do.
“It goes back to our first tenet of our Order — charity first of all,” Ponting said. “And as a Fourth Degree Knight it is allowing me to fulfill my patriotic duty.”
Bernie Ernst is the public relations chairman for the Knights in New Jersey and a member of St. Maximilian Kolbe Council 10899 in Tom’s River, N.J., one of many councils that helps fundraise for the program. He shared that while the program began in 2013, its origin dates back to when one of his brother Knights was boy.
As a child, James Stoever — current State Secretary for the Knights in New Jersey — attended midnight Mass each Christmas near a naval base with his father. After Mass, sailors returned to the base because they could not afford to travel home.
Stoever and his father — who was retired from the Navy himself — made it an annual tradition to invite sailors to spend the night at their house and celebrate Christmas the next day with presents and dinner. This served as the inspiration for the Knights of Columbus’ program.
In the first year, the Knights sent home 49 military personnel and the number has only expanded over the years. The Knights have never turned down a service member who has met the application criteria. In fact, the Knights have been able to cover the cost of every military personnel that has ever applied.
“We’ve helped out 100 percent of everyone who asks for it,” Ernst said.
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