On a crisp October morning in Oklahoma, volunteers begin arriving long before sunrise. There are 300 meals to serve, signs to place, parking spaces to clear and an assortment of other tasks to be done in advance of the arrival of today's heroes—about 150 kids ranging in age from 5 to 15 who have a parent serving in the Oklahoma National Guard.
The day has been organized by the 4-H Foundation of Oklahoma, but everyone understands the real work has been done by Gerry Shepherd, owner of Oklahoma Roofing & Sheet Metal Inc., Oklahoma City. The event is held at Gerry's ranch; his family and friends make up the core of the volunteer team.
Says Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, who heads the Oklahoma National Guard: "Gerry just doesn't know how to say no. When it involves the military or kids, we always know we can count on him."
It has been a tough few years for the Oklahoma National Guard. About 2,700 guardsmen and guardswomen were deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, and 2,200 were sent to Iraq as part of the "surge" in 2011. In both places, they have taken casualties.
On this day, though, the kids don't have to wonder where a parent might be or when he or she might be coming home. This day is a day of pure joy; it involves horseback riding, calf roping, buggy rides, hot dogs, ice cream and giving thanks to families for the sacrifices they make. It is hard to tell who enjoys it most—the kids or volunteers.
Shepherd clearly enjoys it. Asked how he got involved with the event, he says: "There are a lot of programs in place that help people in the service and other programs to help their spouses. But nobody has been helping the kids."
The event is called Horseback Heroes, and it's in its third year. In 2012, about 50 kids participated.
Had this year's event not been held on a drill weekend for the Guard, the total would have approached 200.
By the end of the day, Shepherd already is talking about next year's event. He hopes roofing contractors in other states will develop similar programs, sponsors can be found and this program will become a hallmark of the roofing industry.
Earlier this year, the Horseback Heroes program was awarded the NRCA/CNA Community Involvement Award, which included a check for $5,000. NRCA's staff donated another $1,000. Shepherd says the event couldn't have happened without that support, but no one believes him. It would have happened, of course; he simply would have found another way. Heroes, you see, come in all shapes and sizes.
Bill Good is NRCA's executive vice president.