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Kite-flying event raises money for homeless veterans for fourth straight year

NORTH TONAWANDA – The life-sized kite in the shape of a bald eagle gripping an American flag with its talons made its own statement Saturday flying high above Gratwick-Riverside Park along the Niagara River.

Even though the afternoon didn’t yield much wind to create ideal conditions for a community kite-flying event designed to raise money for homeless veterans, it didn’t stop the nearly 300 enthusiasts who came out to give it their best. A large butterfly kite was high in the air most of the afternoon. Kites sporting rainbow-colored tails and a green and blue box kite also took to the skies.

Valerie Dumpleton defied the odds of this less-than optimum kite-flying day.

The 83-year-old native of England – who now lives in Wheatfield and has been flying kites for more than 20 years – looked every bit the part. She wore a colorful blouse she had made, its print full of colorful kites. And, she proudly talked about the Great Lakes Kitefliers Society, which again helped with the annual “Come Fly a Kite to Help a Homeless Veteran” family event.

“We’re here to fly our kites to bring attention to the vets,” said Dumpleton, a society member who also carried around a small red kite with a colorful tail that she intends to deploy for when 2-month-old great-granddaughter Adley Grace is ready to fly kites with her. “It’s very important when you think these men and women have become homeless. It’s a very sad situation.”

It was the fourth year that the fundraiser was held at Gratwick-Riverside. The event provides free kites and relies on the donations of participants and sponsors to raise money that is then donated to a variety of organizations and, in some cases, helps veterans who need a helping hand to get an apartment.

Vietnam veteran Jack Michel, founder of the event, said the light-on-wind conditions likely resulted in a lower than usual turnout. Coupled with the loss of two sponsors and other community events going on at the same time, he expected $4,000 to $5,000 to be generated – down from the $20,000 raised last summer in donations and sponsors.

“We do what we can,” Michel said.

“We all feel that raising awareness for the housing problem for the veterans when they return is important,” said Michel, who noted that on any given day, there are 2,000 homeless veterans in Western New York. “Charity starts at home. We should make sure that our own veterans, especially those who sacrifice for our country, are taken care of.”

West Seneca grandmother Mary Bencic was busy helping her three grandchildren fly their small kites.

“There you go,” she shouted to Roman, her 3-year-old grandson. “Wow, good job.”

Her husband, George Bencic, a Vietnam veteran, sat a short distance away, helping the other grandchildren with their kites.

“It gets people to recognize us,” he said of the event, which featured information booths, bubble performers, clowns and a Chinese auction.

“The veterans are often forgotten and there’s a lot of vets that need help with PTSD and medical problems and issues with not being able to afford medicines,” Mary Bencic said. “This event is good for the veterans to come and mingle with other veterans. The families are getting together, and you’re helping a good cause.”