Memorial Day Special

Flags and Flowers

Preston Sharp saw a problem. Lions helped him fix it.

Nearly six years ago, 10-year-old Preston Sharp visited his Navy grandfather’s grave on Veteran’s Day. He was disappointed to see no one was honoring the vets on their special day.

Preston Sharp accepting check from with Lions
Preston Sharp accepts a donation from Lions to help fund his Flags and Flowers project.

When Preston voiced his concern to his mother, April Sharp, her response was, “Don’t complain about something unless you’re willing to fix it.”  He accepted her challenge and began an adventure that has blossomed into a registered nonprofit, Flags and Flowers, that outfits veteran graves to honor them for their service.

“So many great women and men lost lives for our freedom,” says Preston, who is now 15 years old. “We all need to show respect every day.”

After his mother issued her challenge, Preston’s story made the local news and caught the attention of Lion Jim Reimer, then vice president of the Redding Breakfast Lions Club. For him, the story struck a chord. He made a pitch to his club and soon Reimer was in touch with April Sharp about how the Lions could help her son.

Initially, Preston’s goal was to place a flag and a red plastic carnation on each of the roughly 6,000 military graves in the Redding cemeteries. His mom found the flags, Reimer rounded up all the red carnations he could find at the local Dollar Tree stores, and the Lions helped fund the purchases with a donation of US$750. Preston visited a 7 a.m. Lions meeting to give a presentation and accept the funding.

He discovered the challenge of speaking to a group of older people, many with hearing aids, but the Lions saw his dedication, and the next year he came to make his pitch with a mic and a speaker.

In his first two years of placing flags and flowers on the local graves, the weather was often cold and rainy. Money and volunteers were in short supply and the task was often left to Preston, his mom, his grandma, Reimer, and an elderly fan named Lydia.

But when Christmas came, the Sharps were guests at the Lions’ annual Christmas Party. Preston had earned the respect and friendship of the senior Lions and they were generous with out-of-pocket contributions to help his cause.

By now local veterans’ organizations were asking him to speak. But Preston didn’t just speak to veterans. More importantly, he listened. And when an elderly veteran needed to go to a nursing home that didn’t accept pets, Preston offered to adopt his dog. He brought the dog visited their friend regularly until the man passed away.

Preston visited others as well. And when the pandemic hit and he couldn’t visit in person, he responded by trying to call at least 10 confined veterans per day to lift their spirits.

Soon Preston was giving more speeches and TV interviews. He earned a spot on television’s popular CBS Sunday Morning.

Preston began to expand his work, covering other cemeteries throughout northern California. More volunteers joined him. Before beginning he instructed the volunteers to say each veteran’s name and thank them for their service, then clear and clean any neglected headstones before they placed the flower and flag on the gravestone.

When the Carr Fire swept through the Redding area in 2018, claiming eight lives and destroying more than 980 structures, Pioneer Cemetery — one of the area’s oldest cemeteries — was ravished by the blaze.  He and his army of about 100 volunteers helped haul away debris, clean the charred stones, and honor the veterans buried in the historical resting place with his flags and flowers.

The Flags & Flowers nonprofit was now up and running full steam. To help him meet the growing demand of cemeteries requesting his services, the Redding Breakfast Lions Club adopted the Millville Cemetery where members and their spouses now make an annual pilgrimage to cover the grounds with flags and flowers for Veteran’s Day.

At home, April Sharp found that she could no longer park her car in the garage because it had become a storage area for the boxes of flags, flowers, and supplies. Lions responded by soliciting material donations from local businesses, and club volunteers donated tools and time to build a storage shed. She got her garage back.

One of the Lions got battery-operated drills and drill bits from a supplier to ease the placement of the flags and flowers into the hard rock and clay soil of northern California.

In 2018, Preston was honored by the president of the United States, went to visit Arlington National Cemetery, and met key veteran’s affairs figures who offered their assistance. In 2020, he and his mom attended Christmas festivities as guests of the White House.

“Pretty amazing feat for our shy 10-year-old boy,” says Reimer.

But the real accomplishment is the 270,000 flags and carnations placed in honor of veterans. It started with one child who was prepared to fix a problem and has become a movement.