Steve Hartman takes CBS viewers on journeys across America with his “On the Road” series of stories. Here, Pam Clifton takes readers across the Parkland by sharing stories of local residents.
They say selfless giving to others represents one’s true wealth. If that’s the case, Shirley Brinkley is a wealthy woman.
She’s often seen helping someone, whether it’s a young student or a staff member at West County Elementary School. She works there as a custodian and bus driver. She’s been with the district for nearly 10 years.
“I love my job,” said Brinkley. “Being around young people always gives me something to smile about.”
Brinkley had a brain aneurysm about six years ago. That was a turning point in her life. She learned something about herself that she hadn’t realized before.
“All I know is that I want my children and grandchildren to be proud to be Americans and to know that we live in the greatest country, the only one of its kind,” she said. “I want to make things better for our veterans, children and our country.”
She has another goal to help reduce the suicide rate of the nation’s veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans, from the current rate of about 20 a day to 0.
To Brinkley, helping one person might not change the world, but if she can change the world for just one person then her goal has been accomplished.
“It’s all about America and its veterans and our children,” she said. “I’ll do whatever I can do to help them.”
Brinkley believes in and follows the VFW Auxiliary motto: "unwavering support for uncommon heroes." She is currently serving a two-year term as trustee, youth activities and scholarship committee chairman for the VFW Auxiliary. She is also the junior vice president, youth activities and scholarship chairman for District 8, the state’s largest district which includes 16 posts in the area from Arnold to Cuba to Lesterville. She previously served this position for her local auxiliary as well.
“The biggest reason I volunteer for the VFW is to give back,” she said, “to our veterans, to our community and to our country. I want to help make a difference, to make a change.”
The VFW and auxiliary offer several programs for youth, including the Patriot Pen essay contest for middle schoolers and Voice of Democracy speech contest for high school students. In addition, scholarships are offered to high school seniors as well as continuing education scholarships for auxiliary members. The VFW sponsors awards for Scout of the Year and Smart/Maher Teacher of the Year.
Two years ago, the VFW and auxiliary partnered together to recognize high school students with the Student of the Month program. St. Francois County VFW Post 2426 in Desloge also started the Student of the Year cash scholarship for one high school senior each from West County and North County.
“The veterans are why we are here,” said Brinkley. “The VFW offers many programs to help our veterans and their families, active duty veterans as well as retired ones.”
Brinkley said the Good Things from Home program that the Auxiliary offers is “near and dear” to her heart. This program sends items to soldiers stationed overseas for Christmas. Last year North County and West County schools were instrumental in helping the auxiliary to collect almost $5,000 worth of snacks, foot warmers, hygiene products and more. The students also made Christmas cards and wrote letters to include with the packages.
“It truly was a great success,” she said. "With the help of our Post members, they were able to pay $1,800 to ship the items to the soldiers."
The Desloge Auxiliary also hosts an annual Christmas party for the local post for area veterans in nursing homes. “It’s another wonderful way we’re able to help others,” said Brinkley.
In addition, post members helped the auxiliary gift three local Scout groups with vests for the Girl Scouts and shirts for the Boy Scouts.
“These items can be very expensive for parents and our post really stepped up,” said Brinkley.
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Another youth program is the auxiliary’s participation in the West County Pre-K graduation ceremonies. Students who have learned the Pledge of Allegiance receive a flag and special certificate.
“It’s a really great thing to see the little ones so proud of themselves to be Americans.”
These are only a few examples of the things the Desloge VFW Post/Auxiliary work hard to accomplish, and they complete numerous service projects throughout the year.
The St. Francois County VFW Post 2426 was actually the first VFW in St. Francois County. The post was formed in 1932 and the auxiliary was created in 1935. The auxiliary changed its name from the ladies auxiliary to auxiliary to include males in the organization.
The group is always seeking new members. Anyone who has a mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, brother, sister, son or daughter who served overseas during times of war are most likely eligible to be members of the VFW auxiliary.
“Even if you don’t have time to volunteer, just paying your membership dues helps us to be able to help our veterans,” said Brinkley. “We would really love to see the membership grow. More volunteers mean we can offer more things to our veterans.”
Upcoming events for St. Francois County VFW Post 2426 include Buddy Poppy drives on July 6 and Aug. 10 at Desloge Walmart and a free veterans’ barbecue on Oct. 5 with the band Ambush.
Brinkley lives in Terre Du Lac with her husband Mel and daughter Sarah Ferrell. Mel is commander of the St. Francois County VFW Post in Desloge. He has served as commander for the post four times, District 8 commander once and state ride president of the VFW Riders of Missouri for four years. He joined the Army National Guard and then Marine Corps and served 11 years, including overseas deployment to Panama, Kuwait and Somalia. He joined the VFW in Bonne Terrre in 2009 and then transferred to the Desloge VFW in 2011.
The pair met at a Halloween costume party at the Desloge VFW Post six years ago.
“We haven’t left each other’s side since,” said Brinkley.
She joined the auxiliary five years ago under her father George Gaddy who served in the Korean War as a 17 year old. “It’s hard for me to understand the hell he must have gone through. He begged his mom until she signed the papers allowing him to join the Army early.”
Her dad passed away nearly 20 years ago and never spoke to his children about his time in the service. After joining the auxiliary and working with veterans, Brinkley says she understands why her dad did some of the things he did in the house.
“It was because of the bombs,” she said, “because today we call that PTSD. Back then if there was a name for it, it certainly wasn’t given the time and attention that it is today.”
Brinkley says sometimes she almost feels like her dad is looking down on her, and he’s proud. “He was a hard-working proud American and he passed his patriotism on to his children.”
That’s the main reason she volunteers for the VFW Auxiliary. “I honestly didn’t know that I would fall in love with it when I joined.” Her daughter Sarah and son James are also auxiliary members.
She is also a proud member of the VFW Riders of Missouri. “I think we truly do live in the greatest country on Earth, and we have our veterans to thank. It is our job to make sure that each of them is taken care of and that our country remembers why we enjoy the freedoms we have.”
In her spare time, Brinkley loves to garden, particularly flower garden. She has a little plaque on her porch that reads, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
Brinkley is certainly someone who believes in tomorrow. As she strives to work tirelessly and selflessly in her service to others, she knows that with each person she helps, she gains a deep personal happiness and joy that can not be explained. But most of all, she knows she’s helping improve the lives of children and veterans all around her with her “unwavering support for uncommon heroes.” And that’s why she does it.