Inspiring teen Amelia Day overcame a severe speech disability and now brings the art of conversation to veterans.
When Day traveled to the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Georgia, with her dad in 2012, it was just a routine visit — until the young girl noticed how many veterans were sitting all alone in wheelchairs in the halls.
“Where I come from, that just isn’t right. You have friends or family with you, and they had no one to be with them,” Day, 18, of Fort Valley, Georgia, tells PEOPLE. “I thought of my dad and my granddads, who were veterans, and if they didn’t have anyone there with them. So, I decided to do something that would cheer them up.”
Day, then 13, started Operation: Veteran Smiles as her 4-H project after talking to her parents about how she could help make the vets feel better by giving them thoughtful cards and one-on-one chats.
“I was a Marine wife so I know what we sacrificed,” Day’s mom Kellie, 48, tells PEOPLE. “My father was in the Army. Some sacrificed emotionally and some sacrificed physically, and seeing them alone was hard. She’s always had an extra caring heart for others.”
It began with 100 handmade cards. But when she delivered them, Day realized that many of the veterans didn’t have basic toiletries. So she approached local dentists and her fellow 4-Hers for help.
“We have 4-Hers in Nevada who have the casinos donate their playing cards, because they can only be used five times before they have to be thrown away and that was a huge waste,” Day says. “So we put them in the bags too.”
More than 5,000 cards and small care packages have been handing out to veterans by Day, her family and her friends through her 4-H project. This year, Day was named the national winner of the 4-H Youth in Action award and the Youth in Action Citizenship Pillar Award. She received $10,000 in scholarships for higher learning. It also came with a sponsorship from U.S. Cellular to take the project to a national level.
Day was initially worried that the sponsorship would mean that her vision would lose the personal interaction that’s so integral to her project.
“She was upset that it would become click a button and feel good about sending a card. The card is just a door opener to get past the apprehension the kids and the veterans might feel,” her dad, Ken Day, a Marine veteran, says.
And after speaking with the company, they enthusiastically agreed to keep with Day’s vision. There are now more than 6,500 volunteers nationwide to hand-deliver the packages and cards.
She remembers the first trip and the overwhelming response she got.
“You would have thought we had handed them 100 bucks because it was so meaningful to them to get something personal and have someone to talk to,” Day says. “A Vietnam War vet was crying and said thank you so much. It’s about giving veterans attention. “
Day has also overcome a severe speech impediment to become a confident public speaker through therapy and her involvement in 4-H.
“I felt alone when no one else could understand me when I spoke,” Day says. “I understand what that (isolation) feels like.”
When she first approached her family to do the project, they agreed to help support her. But her parents insisted she had to be the one to make all the arrangements with the VA hospital.
“Her mother required Amelia to make calls to me to talk about coming,” says Cecilia Jones, supervisor of Recreational Therapy at the center. “It takes a lot of guts to reach out at that age and tell adults what you want to do and how you are going to do it.”
Although Day’s friends were understandably reluctant at first to go to the VA hospital, now they look forward to the trips.
Day’s longtime pal Abigail Turner, 17, was one of the first to work with Operation: Veteran Smiles.
“I was a little iffy about going the first time. It can be depressing to go to a hospital but then I saw the joy it brought to the veterans,” Turner says. “Oh, my goodness. The stories they tell. (A WWII veteran) tells us stories and it’s amazing to hear details. He was part of the Greatest Generation and inspires us.”
Day’s five siblings also help with her project and sister Victoria sings old Patsy Cline songs to them.
“Older Southern men, they love Patsy Cline,” says Turner with a laugh. “It makes your heart sing to bring this sort of joy to them.”
Day’s generosity has inspired her peers, including Turner who raised money to help out farmers and ranchers devastated by the wildfires in the Midwest.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Amelia would think of doing something like this because she’s the sweetest, most caring person in the world,” Turner says. “We draw and write messages in all the cards to say thank you for what you have done for our country and what you still do.”
David Vinson, 63 of Albany, Georgia, is a Marine Corp and US Army veteran who flew Marine choppers in Vietnam, and drove a truck for 30 years. After 33 years of marriage, he lost his wife to cancer and his own health has been deteriorating. He has spent the past decade in residential care at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center.
“I love talking to the kids. It makes my day and gives me a chance to feel refreshed,” Vinson says. “It’s an opportunity to open our minds up to listen to what they have to say. I love to hear from the younger generation and we talk about everything under the sun.”
They ask Vinson about driving a truck and serving in the military, and he talks to them about how much knowledge they have at their fingertips with the Internet and computers.
“We talk about life’s adventures and they talk to me about what is going on with them,” Vinson says. “I tell them I could never imagine at their age that there would be a time when there was so much information. I tell them to accept change or else they will fall behind.”
And change has come to Amelia Day now as well. She graduated from high school, spent the summer as a camp counselor and is looking forward to going into interior design or the culinary world after taking a gap year.
But Operation: Veteran Smiles will always be a part of her life.
“I’m still in charge of it, and U.S. Cellular has taken it national, now in Chicago and North Carolina and now my little idea has expanded and keeps expanding,” Day says. “We still hand deliver the cards and talk to the veterans, not just drop things off.”
After all, it was never about the cards. It was always about spending time with people who had so much to tell the next generation and had done so much to serve their country.
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