As It Happens

Detroit high school students serve as pallbearers for homeless veterans

Students at a Jesuit high school in Detroit have come up with an innovative service project. They're acting as volunteer pallbearers at funerals for homeless veterans.
In a Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015, photo, Detroit Jesuit High School volunteers serve as pallbearers at a funeral of a homeless military veteran at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Mich. More than 50 University of Detroit Jesuit High students have signed up for the new program to serve as pallbearers at the funerals of homeless men and women. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

High school students often volunteer at soup kitchens or nursing homes. But Tom Lennon had a different idea. The 17-year-old senior at University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy wanted to give dignity back to veterans who are homeless or without family. So he suggested the school start a volunteer pallbearer program at funerals for homeless veterans.

"We thought it would be a big help to our community and final tribute to a person's life and give them a dignified burial that everyone deserves," Lennon tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

Lennon started the program along with fellow students Joshua Gonzalez and Leonard Froehlich. Earlier this month, they provided their service for the first time at a funeral for three homeless military veterans.

"We heard their names. We heard what section they were from but besides that we really didn't know anything about them," Lennon recalls.
The students wanted to give dignity back to veterans who are homeless or without family, Oct. 20, 2015. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Lennon says he was moved by the service and felt the gravity of the moment.

"You think..the people that served our country...they put their lives on the line and to then see them go unclaimed...they're on the fringe of society almost and it's scary. But then at the same time when you're doing it, you feel honoured and humbled to be able to do a simple act but an act that means so much for these veterans."

The program announcement cites a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that estimates there are close to 50,000 homeless veterans in the United States.

"I think that's shocking," Lennon says. "You think at sporting events or something, you stand up and we clap for the veterans and that's good and all but when you hear that stat, you kind of think to yourself, 'These are the people that make our country stronger and safer.'  And if there are 50,000 on any given night in the United States, it's kind of disappointing, to be honest."

A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates there are close to 50,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Lennon says the program extends beyond veterans to include all homeless people more broadly defined.

"It's for the socially and economically poor so it could be a homeless person who doesn't have any family or a person who has outlived any of their relatives or any circumstance like that."

Other students have already taken interest in the new program. Lennon says approximately 50 people showed up for the first training session. The school president, Karl J. Kiser, has embraced the program and is helping promote the message.

"He stressed the dignity around someone's life and no matter who they were, what they did on earth, that they deserved a proper burial and I think that's what all the other guys are kind of catching on to that concept."