Homeless veterans were given a proper burial thanks to a New Mexico high school woodworking class, which donated 18 handmade urns to those who might have been buried in a plastic box instead.
Shop teacher Gino Perez and his students at the Valley High School in Albuquerque spent their semester crafting the unique wooden urns that were used in last month’s Forgotten Heroes Burial Program at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
“It’s the last bit of respect that a human being can receive,” Perez told InsideEdition.com. “My goal was to teach [my students] that no matter what or who or how people view you, we can make a difference.”
Student Jose Conteras, 16, said that even though this was his first time ever taking a woodshop class, “I made my cuts as perfect as I could because I knew that my work would go to someone that will need it.”
He added: “Whoever this person was, they did something good in this country. That makes me feel special, so I should do something special for them.”
Conteras told InsideEdition.com that Perez, a veteran himself, suggested building urns to be donated as a community service project for the class, and through his passion and ambition, the idea took off.
“Even though you don’t know the person, they still deserve a home," the teen said. "They still deserve a well-made urn instead of a plastic container.”
A Dignified Burial
Perez, who served in the Navy as a search and rescue swimmer and a mineman, said the issues surrounding veterans and homelessness have always been close to his heart.
“To imagine a man or woman who served honorably […] live their last day on the street,” Perez said, “it’s a bit unjust.”
He originally came up with the urn project at a charter school where he taught at previously, after a discovering his homeless peers have their cremated remains placed in plastic boxes after their death.
“Me, being a veteran, I personally took offense to that,” Perez explained. “I thought plastic was is very offensive because of all the pollution that it leaves behind so I just thought to myself, 'It would be a lot more honorable if we could handcraft an urn that they can put these 'cremains' in and they would have an actual, natural urn with their remains.'”
He and his former students researched how they could help and give back and eventually got in contact with the Forgotten Heroes Burial Program.
“The County of Bernalillo has a program, and they provide a dignified burial for these fallen veterans who are homeless but unclaimed,” Perez explained. “We, the State of New Mexico, now claim them as our family.”
Perez stayed in touch with his contact when he started teaching woodwork and metal shop at Valley High School, and his new class quickly fell in love with the project.
“I’m one of those kids that has always been for the vets,” said Emilio Alvarez, a senior at the school. “Every time I see a vet in a restaurant, store, anything, if I see them wearing their uniform, I’ll go up and shake their hand and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’”
Alvarez explained that many of his family members serve in various branches, and he’s always looked for tangible ways to give back to veterans.
For the project, Alvarez and the other students in the class work in an assembly line method, where they’ll take turns at different stages working on various stages of the urns, from cutting the boards to sanding.
“It showed me that this one little act could lead to something so much more,” Alvarez said.
He said that working on this project is now inspiring him to do more to help his local veterans. Alvarez said he now has plans to reach out to restaurants to organize a day where servicemen eat for free, or to host a fundraiser to support homeless veterans.
Perez explained he brought this project to the school with hopes of also demonstrating to the students that small positive actions can have tremendous significance.
“We are a Title I school,” Perez said. “Our students face homelessness. They face abuse, they face being hungry. I feel that [this project] empowered them. They feel valuable. Now they know, ‘Hey, I can be a part of the community.’”
For Gerald Bancourt, a junior in the class, the project taught him to be proud of his abilities.
“[I am] confident in myself for once. That I can actually make something and not break it or ruin it or pull us back or let us down or something,” Bancourt explained. “At least feel together as a community for once.”
Seventeen-year-old Juan Pacheco, a senior at the Valley High School, had a more tangible use for what he gained in shop class.
“One of the students, actually, their father needed an urn,” Perez explained. “Kind of serendipitously, we had this ability to help another student and his father was a veteran as well. It really kind of touched me.”
Pacheco’s father was a veteran himself, and died of cancer when the teen was just 9 years old. His remains have been placed in a cardboard box and put away in their home.
“We had his ashes in a box because we couldn’t really afford an urn, like an actual urn,” Pacheco said. “Once the opportunity came, I was ready to hop on it.”
He said once he completed the project, he surprised his mom with the handmade piece.
“She loved it,” Pacheco said.
The urn containing his father’s remains are now displayed on a mantle, alongside photos and a flag.
“It’s right up there, right as you walk in,” Pacheco said. “It’s great to show that he’s resting peacefully now.”