“The takeaway is that our time is running out to honor these veterans.”

PARIS — Last summer as twin sisters and Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School seniors Julia and Ashlee Gay of Paris were planning what their senior project might be they hit on the idea of doing something in support of Honor Flight Maine, the nonprofit organization with the mission of bringing veterans to Washington, DC to experience American war memorials.

An initial email inquiry to the Maine office for Honor Flight quickly turned into a whirlwind family trip and culminated months later with Julia and Ashlee raising $9,138, enough to pay for passage for a dozen veterans to fly to the capital in the future.

Vietnam veteran Ernie Gay, left, of Paris was accompanied on an Honor Flight Maine trip to Washington, DC with his twin granddaughters, Julia, center, and Ashlee Gay. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Writing on Sept. 17, 2022, to explain the requirements for fulfilling their senior project, the girls asked Honor Flight to tell them about possible needs they could help with, like providing new wheelchairs or other equipment to be used on trips.

“We are reaching out to you because we first heard about your charity when our Great-Grandfather, Ralph Merrill went on a trip with you folks” Julia and Ashlee wrote. “Fast forward five years and now both of our grandfathers, Ernest Gay and Bill Briggs are going on a trip with you on Friday the 23rd. We wanted to see if there are any items that would benefit your charity in any way. Let us know how we can be of service to you. We look forward to hearing from you!”

The response from Honor Flight was swift and delivered to the twins through their grandfather Ernie. Two available seats had opened up on the same flight that he and Briggs were scheduled to fly to Washington on. An Honor Flight representative called Ernie: Julia and Ashlee were invited to volunteer as guardians for the trip.


Julia and Ashlee jumped at the opportunity and three days later they were on a plane with their grandfathers and two other family members also traveling as guardians. It was a special trip that none of them will forget.

“They rely solely on donations to make the trips happen,” Julia said. “We learned first-hand what goes into an Honor Flight trip.”

Honor Flight trips are an itinerary-packed weekend that starts on Friday afternoon with a flight into Baltimore and an initial stop at Fort McHenry, the site where Francis Scott Key wrote his 1814 poem that would become the U.S. national anthem.

Saturday morning a motorcade of riders accompanies the buses of veterans and their guardians into the capital. The day is spent touring war and military memorials throughout DC, with a wreath presentation at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a visit to Arlington National Cemetery before gathering with Honor Flight veterans from other states for a banquet dinner and presentations. On Sunday the veterans are flown home, where they are given a hero’s welcome after they land.

“It was the most humbling experience to see,” Julia said. “They didn’t get the recognition they deserve when it happened, especially Vietnam.

“So many of our veterans have never felt appreciated for their service. Watching them find people they knew on the Memorial Wall, it made us feel very lucky, people today don’t know what it’s like to live in fear of being drafted.”


“A lot of people didn’t get any ‘thank you’ when they got home,” said Ernie, who was sent to Vietnam in 1968. “I did, but many didn’t.”

Ashlee said she was especially impacted by a random woman at the Baltimore airport weeping as the Honor Flight entourage landed.

“She wasn’t on the flight, she had nothing to do with the flight, she was in the airport and as we were walking by you could see her crying. Honor Flight just doesn’t impact the veterans and their families.”

After returning home Julia and Ashlee were inspired, in part by their shared DC experience with their grandfathers, to do more to help other veterans to the same. They bounced ideas around about ways they could fundraise and came up with holding a benefit dinner.

But not willing to spend money that could be donated to Life Flight to, fundraising began well before the spaghetti dinner they would eventually hold.

The girls reached out to South Paris VFW Post 9787 about using their meeting hall – it had tables, chairs and an onsite kitchen so they would not have to transport anything. The VFW offered to donate the space for the dinner to be held Jan. 28, saving them hundreds of dollars.


Family and friends provided additional support, both with funds to pay for food and volunteer time to prepare the hall and food. A friend of the family, who wishes to remain anonymous, provided food and took on the task of coordinating meal planning and cooking.

“Everything was donated,” Julia said. “We didn’t have to buy anything. The VFW was great, especially Richard Hatch. He did so much for us. So many others helped. The people from Honor Flight helped and they even came to the dinner.”

The twins were not sure how much money they would be able to collect during a community dinner – they thought taking in $1,000 would be good.

The VFW, Honor Flight Maine and others, including OHCHS teachers Jeni Jordan and Kayla McGee, got the word out using their social media pages.

“I cannot say enough about the girls,” Jordan said in an email statement. “They, hands down, are some of the most empathetic students I’ve ever had, they are always trying to help others, but always in a big way!

“When they went on the Honor Flight trip they were so inspired at how impactful it was to our veterans and knew they wanted to help more people (take) that trip. I don’t know of another senior project has raised that amount of money!


“One wants to be a teacher and the other wants to be a nurse, I have no doubt they will continue helping people for the rest of their lives, they are extremely caring compassionate young ladies who I won’t ever forget.”

On Jan. 28 the doors opened and after a good initial 4 p.m. seating of early birds, a lull settled in. But by five o’clock, the pace picked up and the donation jar began to fill up.

“We had to hunt around for chairs to make sure everyone could sit to eat,” Julia said. “And we ended up having take-out service.”

They ended up serving a total of 161 people that evening. The cost per ticket was $10 but diners gave that and then some, anywhere from $20-$100. Multiple people put down hundreds of dollars and some even donated $1,000 or more.

“The takeaway is that our time is running out to honor these veterans,” said Ashlee. “What we can do now will help future veterans be able to go on their honor flight to get the recognition they deserve.”

“And the welcome home they deserve,” added Ernie.


Julia and Ashlee were honored for their work on behalf of Honor Flight Maine in an OHCHS assembly that took place during Winter Carnival Week earlier this month. They will present their senior project report on their experiences and results to OHCHS’ board of teachers in May.

Representatives of Honor Flight Maine accept a check for $9,138 from OHCHS seniors Julia and Ashlee Gay at an Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School assembly. From left, Rosemary Holleman, Honor Flight Maine volunteer, Medical Honor Flight Maine Board Member Crystal Guerrette, Honor Flight Maine Chairperson Matthew Mank, Honor Flight Maine Board Secretary Anita Higgins, Julia Gay, Ashlee Gay and Honor Flight Maine Board Member Charlie Paul. Supplied photo






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