Sandy Swartz was overwhelmed when she received an envelope in the mail about a year ago with a photo of her late father, a helicopter pilot who shuttled wounded soldiers from the front lines of the Korean War to the hospital, in a white military jacket. She knew the image was coming her way — a cousin found it among some old memorabilia and asked if she wanted it.

But a second photo showed the portraits of two other relatives displayed on banners hanging from the same streetlight in her hometown of Souderton Borough, Pennsylvania. Tucked in the envelope was a pamphlet about something called the “Hometown Heroes” banner program in Souderton Borough.

“It just blew me away,” Swartz said. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I want to do this for my dad and my beloved uncle who never had any children.’ I was just so moved by it and thought this would be so wonderful for Oakland, or really any community. It’s just something that when you see, it makes you say, ‘Wow.'”

This contributed photo is an example of the design for the banner program in Oakland. Banners would cost $130, and be owned by the family, lended to the town for display from Memorial Day to Veteran’s Day. The program will be reviewed every two years. Contributed photo

Swartz, who has lived in Oakland since 1981, approached Town Manager Gary Bowman and asked whether she could get a similar banner program started in Oakland to honor the area’s veterans and active service members. She presented the idea to the Town Council in September and they approved, with a condition that the town will reevaluate the program every two years.

Thirty-five people must submit applications in order for the banner project to get off the ground. So far, three families have applied. They are seeking to honor Tim Hall, who has served in the army on Operation Desert Storm since 1991; Col. Patricia Joan M. Wadford, who has served in the army on the Global War on Terror since 1992 and Philip A. Exner, a marine who has served on Operation Enduring Freedom since 2010, according to Bowman.

Banners are $130, which covers the costs of production and the brackets with which to hang the signs. Family members will own the banners and lend them to the town, whose staff will hang them on Memorial Day and take them down and store them for the winter on Veterans’ Day. After two summers, if the town chooses to stop the program, the banners will be returned to the applicants as keepsakes.

Bowman said he hopes to receive all applications by April 1 so the order can be placed in time for Memorial Day. Individuals on the banner must have lived in Oakland at some point in their life.

“If we don’t get 35 applications, the price jumps up quite significantly, so we’re not going to order the banners without the 35,” Bowman said. “So far we’ve only gotten those three applications. There’s been lots of excitement around our (Jan. 7) Facebook post — it was shared about 200 times and reached like 25,000 people. I thought for sure we were going to make (the 35-applicant minimum). I don’t know whether it’s the money or what it is, but it’s about the same price around the country that they’re charging.”

If residents express enough interest, the banners will be hung along Church Street, home to both Memorial Hall (a Civil War memorial) and the local American Legion post. Overflow will most likely go to Main Street, Bowman said.

Amanda McCaslin, director of Parks and Recreation for the nearby town of Winslow, is working on a Hometown Heroes banner program as well, alongside resident Pamela Miranda.

“We’re still in the early planning stages,” McCaslin said. “Oakland is doing it in batches, asking for a certain amount before they order. Our goal is to do it so that if we get five (applications), we get five (banners), if we get 50 we get 50. We’re hoping to accept applications in a month with the goal of getting them up by Memorial Day along the Bay Street and Main Street area. We’re still looking at trying to find banner makers that don’t (require) a minimum.”

Last year, Winslow hung several posters of servicemen in Fort Halifax Park, following a suggestion from Miranda, who has two sons in the marines and has led the charge to bring the Hometown Heroes program to Winslow. Miranda said last year’s display helped build a list of between 35 and 50 people who express interest in participating this year. She said she will not turn away anyone who wants to get a sign for a loved one, even if it means doing bottle drives, bake sales or “whatever we have to do” to come up with the funds.

“It’s all about bringing patriotism back to these small towns in Maine where kids have to leave to get education and jobs, and the military often seems like the way to go,” Miranda said. “It’s really one of those things — we can continue to help the kids not only when they are younger in sports and in games, but when they come home on leave they can see we’re really behind them.

Winslow displays their own version of Hometown Heroes in Fort Halifax Park. Oakland’s Town Council voted to adopt their own program. Banners would cost $130, and be owned by the family, lended to the town for display from Memorial Day to Veteran’s Day. The program will be reviewed every two years. Contributed photo

“It’s kind of the old school way of doing things — back when I was a kid, we were taught to put flags in the cemetery, show respect on Veterans Day and thank people for their service,” she added. “My kids were raised to shake hands and say thank you for serving and protecting. That’s what we’re trying to get back to, and to show our young people that we have so much respect and appreciation for them, especially the way the world is right now, when they could easily not put themselves in harm’s way. We owe it to them.”

Auburn appears to be the only other Maine municipality with a similar program currently in place, and 2020 is its inaugural year as well. The Androscoggin County city of about 23,000 people — compared to Oakland’s 6,250 — is charging $65 apiece for the double-sided banners.

Other towns and cities across the country have participated in similar efforts to honor members of the U.S. troops with downtown signs that contain their images, names and brief biographical information. Swartz’s Pennsylvania place of birth has more than 150 banners hanging and its larger neighboring municipality has about 300. Ten other towns nearby in Pennsylvania also partake in the tradition. Cities in Oklahoma, New York, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and several other states also have Hometown Heroes programs.

“It’s just really unbelievable when you drive through town,” Swartz said of her childhood hometown. “Almost every telephone pole now has two banners hanging because they’ve had such a wonderful response for this.”

While other relatives’ faces proudly watch over Pennsylvanian affairs, in Oakland, Swartz said she hopes to honor her husband, Steve Swartz, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and who, like her, refers to Oakland as his true hometown.

To apply for a banner in Oakland, individuals must fill out an application form and send $130 via cash or a check to the Oakland town office along with a photograph of their relative in a military uniform. For more information about participating in the Winslow banner program, contact Pamela Miranda at 692-6386.


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