The Gary Sinise Foundation is proud to announce we are expanding our Portraits in Giving blog series to highlight key corporate partners who have gone above and beyond to support our work honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need.
Recently we sat down with Pat Dees, President & CEO of WoodmenLife, a not-for-profit life insurance company that puts money back into the community and offers its members a wide range of valuable extras, such as help paying for education and financial assistance following a natural disaster.
WoodmenLife is the exclusive provider of all U.S. flags and flagpoles for the Remembrance Garden at the Gary Sinise Foundation’s annual Snowball Express event, where we bring the children of fallen military heroes and their families to the Walt Disney World® Resort in Orlando, FL during the holidays – a difficult time for those who have lost loved ones. WoodmenLife also provides critical support to the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Relief & Resiliency, Community Outreach & Education, and First Responders Outreach programs.
We spoke with Pat about WoodmenLife’s history of supporting veterans and first responders, and about their commitment to giving back.
Could you explain in the simplest terms, what WoodmenLife does and the
organization’s overall mission?
WoodmenLife is a not-for-profit life insurance organization that gives back to the community. It is very unique: it’s a fraternal organization that has existed since its founding in 1890, so 130 years.
Could you tell us a little bit about WoodmenLife’s philanthropic program and your focus on giving back to the community?
WoodmenLife, as a fraternal organization, is centered around a common set of interests that bond all of our members together. Those interests are: family, community, and country. Our corporate philanthropy is focused on a commitment to those values.
How did the partnership with the Gary Sinise Foundation come about and what
drew you to working with the Foundation?
I had the good fortune to meet Sammy Davis, one of the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Ambassadors. We were joint sponsors of a program where we helped to bring the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall into Louisiana. As I got to know the foundation, I became more and more impressed with what the Gary Sinise Foundation provides, which is very aligned with WoodmenLife’s commitment to supporting our country.
What do you see as the areas of overlap between WoodmenLife and the Gary Sinise Foundation?
The first thing we did to support the Gary Sinise Foundation was to provide U.S. flags for the Remembrance Garden of Snowball Express. Back in 1947, WoodmenLife instituted a flag program, where we donate flags, free-of-charge, to non-profit organizations, schools, and communities. Last year, we surpassed 3.5 million flags that we have provided or donated. You are without words when you see Snowball Express’s Remembrance Garden for the first time, with each of those flags representing a fallen member of a Gold Star family.
Also, when you look at Relief & Resiliency, First Responders Outreach, and some of the other programs of the Gary Sinise Foundation, WoodmenLife also has had a longstanding commitment to providing equipment, support, and recognition to our first responders. First responders are the heroes in our hometowns. The firefighters, police, EMTs, and paramedics: first responders are a core necessity for our communities to be viable. WoodmenLife provides equipment and philanthropy to recognize those who put their lives in harm’s way for our
What does the cause of supporting service members, veterans, first responders,
and their families mean to you personally?
I believe our country is special and unlike any other country in the world. So much of what makes our country special are the freedoms, rights, and privileges that we enjoy, and all of those have been fought for and defended by those who have served in the armed forces. The men and women who fight to protect and defend our freedoms at home and abroad deserve our highest praise and our highest recognition.
Can you talk a little bit about Snowball Express: your experiences at the events, seeing the Remembrance Garden for the first time, and what it meant to you?
We were invited to provide the U.S. flags and flagpoles to the Remembrance Garden, but one of the things that is deep within the roots of WoodmenLife is the commitment to volunteer and to give back. We try to pair our philanthropy with the opportunity to put some sweat equity into the project. We had a set of volunteers that went down to Snowball Express that first year, and the recap I received from all the volunteers was: “You’ve got to go. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.” So I was able to go the following year and they were 100 percent correct.
The values and the kinship that these families all share that come to Snowball Express – they might have been the only family in their town who has been through this. They felt unique until they had the opportunity to be among those who had the same experiences…it is heartwarming and heartbreaking.
There is a name and a placard on each flag in the Remembrance Garden that stands to honor one of those service members who lost their life. In the garden, the families take time to pause, remember, take it all in: they’ll write notes, leave mementos at the flag, it’s all part of the healing process. It really is a humbling experience.
Can you talk a little bit about what first responders mean to you and WoodmenLife in terms of how they help the community?
In some of these communities, the first responder departments aren’t necessarily supported financially, sometimes it’s an entirely volunteer squad. We try to do what we can to meet their needs, whether it be equipment or recognition. Most of what we endeavor to do at WoodmenLife is to support those who are volunteering themselves and giving back. Often times, it’s a thankless job, so we also host award nights so that first responders can be honored in front of their families and members of the community.
To find out more about WoodmenLife, where do you suggest people go? The easiest way to access information is to go to our website WoodmenLife.org where you can learn more about our organization, our philanthropy, and our volunteer engagement opportunities.