We reached beyond the sky when we sent a request months in advance to NASA for a female astronaut to be our keynote speaker at our 2nd annual Wings for Val Foundation event … and we were shocked and thrilled when we received notice that LtCol Nicole Mann had been approved to participate. Having the opportunity to spend the day with this incredibly inspiring, humble, hard working, kind, selfless and fearless woman whose career has taken her on a journey towards outer space made me truly believe in the words she signs in her autographs, “The sky is NOT the limit!”
We couldn’t have dreamed up a more successful series of events last weekend, helping us to raise over $12,000 and counting towards our mission of honoring my sister Val’s legacy by inspiring the next generation of females to spread their own wings and soar!
We had some great press coverage leading up to our event thanks to Lisa Hawkins an Annapolis-based PR superstar who volunteers with the Travis Manion Foundation. Here are a few of the media highlights:
We met LtCol Mann first thing on Saturday morning for a breakfast social event we sponsored at the Naval Academy with over 250 midshipmen interested in careers in aviation. We had the opportunity to share Val’s story and then LtCol Mann, USNA Class of ’99, shared her career path from Annapolis to Houston and soon-to-be outer space! The students were so inspired by her talk and enjoyed the opportunity to ask questions, socialize, and get autographs.
Later in the afternoon we welcomed over 150 people from all walks of life to the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to learn more about Val and our Foundation and to hear from LtCol Mann and several other inspiring speakers. We were thrilled to have LtCol Mann add her wings to the Wings for Val exhibit, along with three additional sets from female aviators that were given to us. After a beautiful performance of the National Anthem by Gold Star mother, Cathy Mullins, I had the honor of debuting an incredible short film that was made for us by 3 Penny Films, which can be viewed through this link: https://vimeo.com/181830039. As this video beautifully showcases, our family has embraced Val’s motto to “ADAPT AND OVERCOME” the tragedy of our loss by allowing Val’s legacy to take flight, using the powerful metaphor of the wings to inspire others to fearlessly and selflessly reach forward and reach behind on the path towards spreading one’s own wings.
These messages were reinforced throughout the event, first by the stories of two very special women and gold star survivors, Amy Looney from the Travis Manion Foundation and Pam Valliere from the Navy Gold Star Program who both shared how they have also turned personal tragedies into transformation and incredible acts of service.
LtCol Mann then delivered a phenomenal keynote address about how she has committed to a purpose much larger than herself through her career in the Marine Corps and now with NASA preparing the next generation for future missions to Mars. It was so cool getting a glimpse into a career that so many only dream of and to realize that becoming an astronaut is not magic, nor does it happen over night… it happens with years of hard work, persistence, fearlessness, reliance on others and a deep commitment to serving a larger purpose. We are so thankful to LtCol Mann for her thoughtful preparation of her inspiring presentation and for sticking around to sign autographs and mingle with our attendees. We can’t wait to continue following her and her fellow classmates during their time with NASA!
Last but not least, we had a special appearance by Rick Yount, CEO, of Warrior Canine Connection, an organization in Boyds, MD that enlists recovering warriors in a therapeutic mission of learning to train service dogs for their fellow Veterans. Rick introduced everyone last year to a tiny little puppy named Delaney, named after our Val, who has now, by fate, been adopted by my parents and continues her service training and work as a therapy dog. We had several other service dogs in training and “puppy parents” in attendance, and this was a huge hit! We admire the work of WCC so much that we presented Rick with a very special painting of a black lab by John Bramblitt, a completely blind artist who my dad had met at a No Barriers USA conference in 2014.
After the program, we had a wonderful reception in the main exhibit gallery with amazing food catered by Mission BBQ and beer provided by Dog Tag Brewing, a brand with a foundation that honors fallen heroes and supports gold star families.
The excitement continued through on Sunday!! We participated in TMF’s Annapolis 9/11 Heroes Run and had over 180 people on our Wings for Val team (up from 60 people last year) – wow! It was a gorgeous day – perfect for running/walking the 5k or 1 mile in the neighborhoods around the Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with over 1500 runners to honor all the servicemen and women lost on 9/11. We were thrilled to have the entire Navy Women’s Lacrosse team participate on our team in their fellow fallen teammate’s memory, and to connect them with many local youth lacrosse girls!
We can’t thank each and every single one of you enough for your continued support and encouragement. This was a huge weekend for us, for our country honoring the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and also for the Naval Academy celebrating 40 years of women at the Academy. We are so proud, humbled, and motivated to keep up this important work!