By Terry Rogers
The Riverwalk Freedom Festival, a two-day event held each year the weekend after Labor Day in Milford, began with “Operation Giveback,” designed to give thanks to veterans and current military members for their service to the country. During Operation Giveback, those who served in the Armed Forces were provided a free meal by Burgers and Beans of Milford, while all food vendors offered 10 percent military discounts to family members of those who served. In addition, a Veteran’s Comfort Station” was offered in the Bicentennial Park gazebo where those who are currently serving or had served could relax, enjoy their dinner and escape the heat. Veterans and current military members were able to relax in comfortable reclining chairs, provided by Aarons.
“Dedicating this night to those who serve the country is heartwarming,” said Honored Guest Colonel Karen Berry of the Delaware Army National Guard, a 27-year veteran. “Tomorrow, we welcome home the 238th Aviation unit and with this return, 100 percent of the service men and women in our units have returned safely from deployment. Many of our men and women are deployed multiple times and when those who answer the nation’s call are supported as we are tonight, it is deeply appreciated.”
Operation Giveback is in its third year at the Riverwalk Freedom Festival, and is the brainchild of Cheryl Doucette, a volunteer for the Greater Milford Chamber of Commerce. “The event was scheduled the weekend after the 9/11 attacks, and there was discussion of cancelling,” Jo Schmeiser, Executive Director of the Chamber said. “That year, we decided to begin calling it the ‘Riverwalk Freedom Festival’ as a way to show patriotism in a time when we needed to be united as a country.” After the event was renamed, the organizers kept a patriotic theme throughout the event with red, white and blue decorations, as well as a focus on the contributions of the military.
Three years ago, the committee decided to move the fireworks display, which had traditionally been held on Saturday night, to Friday night. Once that decision was made, the group needed a way to draw more people to Bicentennial Park on a night that was traditionally not as well attended. Ms. Doucette, who works for the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, suggested a non-profit night on Friday that would showcase the areas non-profit organizations and allow those attending Friday night festivities to learn more about programs available to them.
“We decided to focus non-profit night on military non-profits, for groups like The Veterans Association, Home of the Brave, the National Guard and other military-related groups,” Ms. Doucette said. “I then approached Bruce Johnston of Burgers and Beans about possibly donating hot dogs that we could then provide to veterans. He not only agreed to donate, he agreed to serve burgers and beans to all veterans and current military members who were there on Friday night. From the first night, it was a huge success.”
Mr. Johnston, who is 22-year veteran, said that he had no hesitation when Ms. Doucette approached him about the event. “I saw this as a great opportunity to give back to those who served our country,” Mr. Johnston said. “As a veteran myself, I knew how important support of the community is to people who are serving and who had served in the past. It was my idea to give the free meals because I wanted to be sure that those who served our country were given something back.”
This is the first year the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition was a sponsor of the event, and Ms. Doucette said that there is a strong connection between the organization and the military.
“We provide a lot of support and programs for women who may be diagnosed or undergoing treatment while their husbands are deployed,” said Ms. Doucette. “Our Bosom Buddy, Peer-Mentor Programs and others are excellent programs for women who may be in an area with no family or other support after a breast cancer diagnosis.”
All of the volunteers involved in the event said that it was gratifying to be able to give back to those who have served in the military, especially the residents of the Delaware Veterans Home who were brought to the event by staff members. Festival organizers say they plan to continue Operation Giveback at the event every year and hope to get the word out to even more veterans in the area next year.