COLUMBIA — Seventy-five star-emblazoned luminaries lit the paths to the island in Stephens Lake Park on Sunday night as military families and their supporters celebrated Gold Star Mother's Day in honor of mothers whose children died while serving their country.
"This is one small gesture … a little light in honor of the families we hold so dear and what they have sacrificed for us," event organizer Tracy Della Vecchia said as she introduced the ceremony.
About 20 attendees stood silently in a single line, a row of American flags behind them. The electric lights under the canopy, where the ceremony was held, only reached faintly beyond its perimeter. The flags ruffled as a light breeze cooled the night.
This was the first year Columbia held a ceremony for Gold Star Mother's Day, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. It is observed annually on the last Sunday in September.
The Gold Star tradition involves hanging a flag with a blue star for every member of the family in military service. If a family member dies, a gold star is sewn over the blue star to indicate the loss.
Della Vecchia presented the two Gold Star Mothers in attendance with clear glass suncatchers — bordered by red, with a gold star in the center — to hang in their windows.
"My mission is to honor the Gold Star Mothers in a way that's much bigger than just flying flags on our government buildings," Della Vecchia said. She chose to give them suncatchers to symbolize light shining through.
Della Vecchia has helped organize similar ceremonies nationwide for the last three years through Marine Parents, the national nonprofit organization she founded while her son was deployed. Marine Parents provides education and support to Marine families, as well as community awareness of troop support, through a host of outreach activities and forums.
Della Vecchia's son, Cpl. Derrick Jensen, returned home from three deployments.
Columbia is the nonprofit's national headquarters, so Della Vecchia said she thought it would be appropriate to hold a ceremony here.
On the darkened path to the center of the lake, a few people stepped forward to light the remaining luminaries leading to the canopy. A sole bagpiper warmed up softly in concert with the chirping crickets, then struck the evocative notes of "Taps."
All in line stood at attention, then bowed their heads in a prayer led by chaplain Stanley Scott of the S.F. Gearhart Detachment.
Dale and Sandy Deraps, of Jamestown, attended the ceremony in honor of their son, Lance Cpl. Leon B. Deraps, who died in service on May 6, 2006. A former Eagle Scout and a young engineer, he was serving in Al Anbar Province in Iraq.
"They went out at night, rebuilding things that had been destroyed," Sandy Deraps said of the night her son's unit encountered an IED. He was 19 and the youngest of his five siblings.
Sandy Deraps said she still keeps in touch with all the soldiers her son served with. The family started an annual 5-mile walk/run/ride in his name, which raises scholarship money for graduates of Leon’s high school. Last year they gave $1000 scholarships to six graduates.
Sandy Deraps recalled how excited her son was when he got his license to drive a Humvee. "He had a Jeep that was always breaking down," she said while smiling.
Sandy Deraps was dressed in white pants and a white sweatshirt, with a white Gold Star Mothers military-style cap — the official dress code for American Gold Star Mothers events. Deraps said she is a member of the St. Louis Chapter of AGSM but is currently inactive.
"It’s hard to come to events like this," Sandy Deraps said, struggling not to cry. She said this was her first luminary ceremony.
"If it gives hope to other mothers out there, then it’s worth it," she said. "If you can help somebody, it gives you peace."