Justin Peterson was only in fourth-grade and nine-years-old when he decided to raise $600 to send a veteran back to Washington D.C. on the Inland Northwest Honor Flight, an organization that sends veterans to Washington D.C. in honor of their service to their country. But that goal stretched far beyond $600. Peterson is now twelve and has raised over $57,000 to support veterans.
“He saw Honor Flight on the news. And then he wanted to raise money. He was like ‘I want to raise $600!’ And we [thought] he was never going to do it. We [thought we would have to] send him anonymous donations. And then it just took off,” Liz Peterson, Justin’s mom, related.
Justin Peterson’s desire to help the veterans really began when he interviewed ten World War II veterans for a non-graded project required by the Gess Elementary School in Chewelah. He wrote a letter printed in the Independent, the newspaper in Chewelah, which asked veterans to be interviewed for his project. Ten veterans replied.
“I asked about their stories and had ten questions from each one of them,” explained Justin Peterson. “I had a poster made up with all of their answers. [And] I had to have a three-dimensional model, so I chose one of our veterans to be my 3-D model.”
Community supports veterans too
But that project was only the beginning. Peterson, hearing about the Inland Northwest Honor Flight, was inspired to raise money. But his parents were slightly doubtful. However, they let him pursue the goal.
“Out of the first organizations that I talked to [about donating], two gave me $600 donations. So I surpassed my goal right off the start,” Peterson explained.
Before Peterson raised the initial monies, he called the director of the Honor Flight program. When he explained his goal, the director was also slightly doubtful.
“At first, he [the director] was like, ‘yeah, ok. He was thinking, “Well, whatever.’ And a couple months later, Justin gives him a $4,000 check,” explained Liz Peterson.
According to Liz Peterson, many stores and organizations in the Chewelah community supported her son’s project. The American Legion even donated their building for one night so that Justin Peterson could put on a dinner to raise support.
“We went to the American legion, and I gave my speech. I asked for a donation, but they offered the American legion hall for one night and said you can put on a dinner. And I was like, ‘ok.’ And my mom was like ‘oh no.’ So that was how the nacho dinner was born,” explained Justin Peterson.
Since that time, the Petersons—Liz, her husband Larry, and Justin—have all put on a nacho dinner together to raise money for the veterans. There have been four dinners in Chewelah and two in Oroville, where Peterson’s parents grew up, according to Justin.
Another fundraiser that has developed because of Justin Peterson’s cause was the Poker Ride. For a $25 entry fee that buys a shirt, a poker hand (an extra hand costs $5), and lunch, the participants will drive off road vehicles on a 40 to 60 mile route.
“Local businesses donate prizes. We usually have package prizes, like a ‘Night in Chewelah’,” explained Liz Peterson.
So far, Justin Peterson has been able to send around 75 to 80 veterans on the Honor Flight through his fundraisers.
“That’s about two plane loads,” estimated Liz Peterson.
Justin Peterson was even able to tour Washington D.C. with three Honor Flight veterans when he went as a guardian. A guardian is usually a grandchild or relative of the veteran and must pay their own pay unlike the veterans.
However, since many veterans on the Honor Flight list are in their 80s, time is critical. The veterans that have first priority on the Honor Flight list are either elderly or terminally ill. Because Peterson knows many elderly veterans only have a short time left, he has an urgency to send back as many as possible.
“Time is sensitive, so they are trying to get as many as possible.
[The manager of Honor Flight] was calling veterans to go on this last flight and three out of the first five [on the list] had passed away before he [could] call them. And afterwards [after he called] a couple more had passed away,” explained Liz Peterson.
By the time Justin Peterson graduates, he would like to donate $100,000 to the Inland Northwest Honor Flight. At only twelve years old, he still has five more years to meet that goal.