At age 11, Preston Sharp has received more media exposure and public recognition for his good deeds on behalf of veterans than most adults could expect in a lifetime. He's received medals of honor and recognition from military groups, a folded flag that once flew over the nation's capital, and last month he received the Community Hero award at the Redding Chamber of Commerce Hall of Excellence dinner; the youngest person to ever receive that award.
Preston's best known for the work he's done to honor thousands of north state veterans' grave sites with flags and flowers at nearly a dozen north state cemeteries, with invitations to travel to yet more cemeteries to honor the veterans buried there, too.
The fourth-grader never aspired to become known as the kid who hangs out in cemeteries where he spends hour after hour working at strangers' grave sites in every kind of weather. He never dreamed that what started as a trip to the cemetery with his mother to visit his grandfather's grave would grow into the massive undertaking and responsibility it's become today.
He also never predicted he'd become a sought-after speaker who tells his story to veterans' groups and service clubs, something he does to gather funds for more flags and flowers, which eventually need replacement. By now, he can tell his story in his sleep.
"It was Veterans Day 2015. I went to Redding Memorial Park to honor my grandpa that I'd never met with a flag and a flower," he said.
"I was real upset that no other veterans had flags and flowers on their graves. Later that night I was still upset about it. It was Veterans Day! Why no flags out? So my mom said I couldn't complain about it unless I did something about it."
He took his mother's words to heart, and got busy.
If April Sharp ever regretted her advice to her youngest son, she's kept it to herself. But the reality is that Preston's ambitious goal to honor every veteran's grave with a flag and a flower inadvertently became his mother's project, too.
"I did chores for my mom to get money for the first flags and flowers," Preston said with a wide smile across his handsome face. "The first day I made fifteen dollars."
That $15 was a drop in the bucket of what would end up being thousands of dollars spent - about $2 for a flag, and $1 for plastic flowers - much of which was funded by April - a single mom of Preston and his 16-year-old brother - in the form of paying her son to do odd jobs around the house. Her friends and family donated to the cause, and they set up a GoFundMe site that helped, too.
But it wasn't just a financial investment for Preston's mom, but one of time and travel, too. When it was time for Preston to work at a cemetery, or show up for a speaking engagement, or visit the Veterans Home, his mother was the main source of transportation.
April, with long blond hair that falls in loose curls, and sparkly blue eyes, did this willingly. She was proud of her son's determination and commitment, and she wanted to provide as much support and encouragement as much as possible.
Preston's cemetery jobs grew, starting with the Redding Memorial Park, and moving onto Lawncrest Memorial, and cemeteries at Whiskeytown, Round Mountain and Anderson, to name a few. No matter how many graves he visited, Preston stuck to his ritual.
"I go there to honor them," he said. "I say their name out loud, and then I say 'thank you' for their service. I see live vets, too."
When Preston's project began, the Sharp family of three was still reeling from a traumatic event that happened on Black Friday, 2013. April, the general manager at the Gap Outlet in Anderson, had done as she always did on Black Friday, the busiest retail shopping day of the year. She'd made arrangements for her sons to stay with relatives so she could leave at 3 a.m. to open the store and prepare for a very long day.
When April returned home many hours later, exhausted and rummy from lack of sleep, for some strange reason her garage door opener wouldn't work, so she went to the front door. But even after she unlocked the door, it wouldn't budge. She said it felt like pressure, as if someone was pushing the door from the other side. She finally leaned against it with all her might until the door popped open. She encountered a home and all its contents completely gutted by fire, smoke and soot.
They later learned that while the family was gone, an electrical fire had broken out in the bathroom. Everything in the home was destroyed, including a cat, a tank of exotic fish and Preston's pet geckos. But the worst loss for April was the death of her prized blue Macaw, Sapphire, a highly intelligent bird that could engage in conversations.
"For us, pets are family, and when Sapphire died, it was like losing a best friend," April said.
She laughed. "Honestly, I've had bad luck all my life. Bad luck, but good kids."
It took nearly a year for the house to be rebuilt and ready to inhabit. Today, in the space that once held Sapphire's massive black cage - the place the grand bird died - the family created an artistic shrine of sorts, a collection of Sapphire-themed wall sculptures and paintings in her memory.
"We tried to make this place a happy place," April said.
So when Preston started his cemetery project in 2015, the family was just getting back on their feet.
But tragedy reappeared at the Sharp home last month, again around Thanksgiving. The Gap Outlet store closed. April lost the job she'd loved, the place she'd worked for 19 years.
She did her best to remain positive. A message in her kitchen offered a philosophical reminder.
Christmas was coming, and things were looking bleak. Preston had asked for a computer for Christmas. Her 16-year-old son needed gas money.
And then Preston met a veteran name Tim Witting at the Veterans Cemetery in Igo. The two struck up a conversation, and Tim said he recognized Preston as the kid who honors veterans.
Later, they met again at the Veterans Home in Redding, where Tim, who'd lived in an RV/van for seven years, was a new resident. The veteran and the boy became fast friends.
Preston got a tour of Tim's room, and when he did, he noticed something that bothered him: There were many photos of a white dog with brown spots. And when Preston asked about the dog, Tim welled up and said he had to leave his dog in Oregon, because the Veterans Home doesn't allow dogs.
Preston has a Facebook page that's dedicated to his work for veterans. It's a way for him to reach out to ask for help, or to tell about a new project, or, in the case of a recent post, to share what he'd learned about Tim:
I met a vet at the Vet's home that I really like talking to. He had all these pictures in his room of a dog. He said his dog is his best friend that he ever had. They lived in his van together for seven years before his health got bad and he had to move into the Vets home. Then he told me that in order to move in the Vet home he needed to give the dog to a cousin that lives almost 4 hours away. So I asked my mom instead of a lap top computer for Christmas that I wanted his dog to come live with us. That way he can see his dog anytime he wants! The Veteran is SO excited and the dog is coming to my house Monday! I was wondering if anyone has extra dog stuff for him? Like dog dishes, bed, treats, Dog house or can change my chicken house to a dog house.... This is the BEST Christmas gift for a great vet EVER! IM me if you can help get stuff for the dog....or does someone know someone that is a manager of Pet Smart or Pet CO, I am sure the dog is going to need a bath? THANK YOU AND MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Tim's dog's name is Rusty. He's a Dalmatian Queensland Heeler. When the Sharps agreed to adopt Rusty, Tim drove to Oregon to retrieve his dog. They returned to Redding where Tim lives in the Veterans Home, and Rustry lives with the Sharps and their golden retriever, Sophia.
The good news is that Rusty and Sophia get along. The bad news is that Rusty has some bowel and bladder issues.
"Rusty poops and pees on the floor," Preston said.
The day I visited Preston and April in their home, they had an appointment later that day at their veterinarian's office in Shingletown for both dogs. Sophia was due for some routine shots, but Rusty was getting a full catch-up treatment, since the dog was behind on everything from rabies shots to heart-worm treatments.
Rusty had only been with the Sharps for two nights at that point. But by then, April had scheduled the dogs' medical appointments, in addition to grooming, plus $250 in carpet and floor cleaning. It was becoming a week filled with unexpected financial expenses.
April smiled, shrugged and spoke softly, out of earshot of Preston. "I mean, when your kid says,'We have to do this for a veteran,' you can't say no."
So April said yes, and she's grateful to those who've offered to donate money to help cover the costs of the veterinary bills and pet supplies.
Meanwhile, there's Tim, the 71-year-old Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy for four years on a guided missile destroyer, the USS John King DDG 3.
He took a moment from his time with Rusty at the dog park Wednesday to talk via Facebook messenger about the gratitude he feels for the mother and son who'd made it possible to reunite him with his best friend, Rusty - his "baby".
He said that leaving Rusty behind with a cousin in Medford was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. Having Rusty back in his life was Tim's Christmas miracle.
"That boy is unbelievable," Tim said of Preston.
"When it comes to something to do with the veteran, his mindset at 11 years old is to help. Of course, I'm sure his mom helped start the idea of honoring veterans, but he took it and ran with it. He doesn't stop, and his mom drives him."
Back at the Sharps, in between helping Rusty adapt to his new home and take him to his appointments, and driving Preston to his veteran duties, such as delivering a gift of a coat and shoes to someone at the Veterans Home Thursday, April is busy lining up interviews. She could use a Christmas miracle herself: a job. For the first time in her life, she's considering leaving retail management and trying a career in marketing, leaving those Black Fridays behind her.
April said her ideal job would be a fairly new business, a place that wants a hard-working, accomplished person who's loyal, a fast-learner and a good communicator. She gets along well with all kinds of people, and loves a challenge. April would love a job where she could stay, and grow with the company.
She's due for some good luck.
And Preston, he feels good about helping Tim. But a deal's a deal, and Preston doesn't expect a computer this year for Christmas, because he relinquished that gift request when he adopted Rusty the dog instead.
"Besides, my mom doesn't have a job right now," he said. "So it's OK."
Preston is proud that he recognized a need, and helped create an especially magical Christmas for a veteran and the man's best friend, his dog. Now, thanks to Preston and his mom, Tim can see Rusty whenever he wants.
"I'm at Benton dog park with Rusty at this very moment, like we used to do years ago," Tim said via messenger as we wrapped up our conversation. "We are both so happy."
And that's exactly the gift Preston hoped for.