By Cliff Buchan, Forest Lake Times
A program honoring the families of military personnel who have died in defense of their country that started in the eastern part of the state will move to Central Minnesota next year.
The Board of Directors of the Gold Star Family Weekend program announced this week that the event will shift to Camp Ripley near Little Falls next year. The event is now in its second year of being hosted in Forest Lake and at the Disabled Veterans Campground in Scandia on the shores of Big Marine Lake.
The program completed its second season, Aug. 3-5.
Ron Weiss, a member of American Legion Post 225 in Forest Lake and a member of the Gold Star board, said this week the gathering fast outgrew the facilities at the Disabled Veterans Rest Camp.
Weiss was among a small group who began brainstorming the idea of a weekend program honoring Gold Star families. That was three years ago.
When the program launched last year, 24 Gold Star families accepted the invitation to attend the weekend retreat. This year, Weiss said, more than 35 families were registered with the number likely to swell.
“We initially expected to get folks attending from our border states,” Weiss said, pointing to Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota. “It just continues to grow,” he said. “We’ve had contact from people in Illinois.”
With the event growing in popularity, Weiss said the board concluded the rural Washington County campground was becoming too small to handle the gathering. Even this year, Weiss said, some veterans who had reserved facilities at the campground, were kind enough to surrender their reservations.
“It’s not really fair to take over the whole campground for a weekend,” Weiss said.
During the Aug. 3-5 weekend, events were staged at the campground Saturday. The opening dinner and reception on Friday night was hosted at VFW Post 4210 in Forest Lake.
In deciding to make the move to the Little Falls area in August 2013, Weiss said the event will be hosted at a venue with more lodging and camping facilities and is in a central location that may enable more Gold Star families from a wider area to attend.
Next year’s dates are Friday, Aug. 23 through Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013.
In forming the non-profit Gold Star Family Weekend Inc., Weiss secured key volunteers with Merrilee Carlson of Hastings and Kathy Dunaway and Keith Hegstrom of Forest Lake. Carlson lost a son in the war in Iraq.
All three hold office duties with Carlson the board president.
Weiss said he is humbled by the financial support the Gold Star Family Weekend has found. The organization has needed some $10,000 in each of the first two years to pull off the retreat.
Support has come from Legion and VFW organizations from all corners of the state and such statewide organizations as Tee It Up for the Troops Inc. and the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Charity. Business backers have also stepped forward, he said.
When this year’s event needed an entertainer for the opening night program, national recording artist and Army veteran Rockie Lynn stepped in at no charge for a two-hour concert. He has been a strong advocate for veterans and is the founder of the Tribute to the Troops organization.
For more information, visit www.GoldStarWeekend.com.