When the Veterans Memorial Building in Hollister reopens for public use, visitors will find a new museum on-site honoring soldiers past and present. The museum is in large part the work of Girl Scout Sommer Salinas, who used her time during the shelter-in-place to create a memorial to San Benito County residents who served in the Armed Forces.
“It is important to me that we have a place for memories of these servicemen,” she said, “just as a way of showing respect for them and for what they have done.”
Salinas, 18, is an ambassador in Girl Scout Troop 23410, a designation for girls who are in 11th or 12th grade. Her work for the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9242 earned her a Gold Award, the highest scout honor. She is the last of that troop, which is disbanding for lack of new members, and will be moving on to become the first girl member of Boy Scout Troop 446 in Hollister.
“I was in Girl Scouts for about 11 years,” Salinas said. “As time grew on, girls kept dropping out but I wanted to stay until I was finished.”
As a member of Venturing Crew 402, a Boy Scouts co-ed program with members ranging from 14 to 20 years old, Salinas participated in a 62-mile canoe excursion in Louisiana last year shortly after Hurricane Barry hit the area.
She has also excelled in athletics as a top member of the San Benito High School swim team, qualifying in seven different swimming meets. She was able to participate in only one meet this year—her senior year—before all sports activities were canceled because of COVID-19.
No matter how busy Salinas is, though, she’s always made time to volunteer where she can, including helping out at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on the day of the 2019 shooting.
Salinas has a long history of volunteering at the Veterans Memorial Building, as military service runs through her family. The San Benito chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens honored her uncles George, Tom and David Nava, along with cousin Nathan Vasquez, as Family of the Year on Veterans Day in 2015.
George Nava, a Vietnam veteran and member of the VFW Honor Guard, served as Salinas’ mentor on the museum project.
“I had talked about this for years,” said Nava, 71. “The American Legion was supposed to take it on and they never did. Sommer approached me and asked if she could do it for her Gold Award and I said ‘sure.’”
The project began in February, but things soon came to a halt as the shelter-in-place order took effect the following month. At first, the Federal Emergency Management Agency took over the building, using it to coordinate efforts to fight the pandemic locally. When they left, the county set up a COVID-19 testing site there, and Salinas was able to resume working on her museum project.
“She would go in after eight o’clock in the evening, after they were done testing for the day,” said Nava. “As long as she stayed out of the main part of the building she could do her work.”
The complications of sheltering meant that other volunteers could not join in the work, leaving Salinas and her sister Autumn, a member of Girl Scout Troop 23403, alone in the job. Another downside of sheltering is that all fundraising activities had to be canceled, leaving Salinas to pay for the project herself.
The sisters set about cleaning the room, arranging furniture, clearing out cabinets, cataloging all the exhibits, creating frames for hanging uniforms, sorting and framing photographs, creating shadow boxes and displays, and labeling everything. They discovered a cache of photos of 9/11 in a storeroom that had been donated by someone years ago who lost a relative in the attack in New York. The photos will be on display when the museum opens on the first floor of the Hall, which Salinas hopes will happen with a special ceremony on Veterans Day.
Other found items required research before they could be displayed.
“The most interesting thing for me was to go through all the medals that were donated,” Salinas said. “I looked them all up to find out what they were for and it was amazing to see what they all meant.
While getting her Gold Award was all she had expected from her work, members of the local VFW post had a surprise waiting for her: a contingent of uniformed veterans came to her home on May 28, led by Bernie Ramirez, commander of VFW Post 9242, to present her with one of the 10 scholarships they award every year to deserving graduates.
“We found out that Sommer did not get a scholarship she applied for,” said Nava. “We are able to give them to anyone we want. She has always been there to help us and we were proud to do this for her.”
The unexpected honor left Salinas speechless.
“I was in shock,” she said. “I looked at my mom and asked her what was going on. I did not know what to say and all I could think to do was smile. I was always taught to honor our veterans and it means a lot that they turned around and honored me.”
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