ROXBURY, NJ- -Six years ago, the Roxbury town council was barreling toward the annual Memorial Day parade with no idea who would captain the event. None of the usual possible organizers was available.
But the council members eventually identified one prospect: a local service unit manager for the Roxbury/Mount Arlington Girl Scouts. Her name was Christine Houtz, and she’d managed the Girl Scouts for nearly a decade. She’d also made herself familiar to the town officials by volunteering for some of their other events.
As the big day drew closer, Houtz was the last hope for a governing body that needed somebody to take on the months of work and preparation that goes into the Memorial Day extravaganza. When the township approached Houtz, it went right to the point: It was her or nobody.
“I was basically told that if I wasn’t capable of putting that together for them that they didn’t have anyone in mind to basically take my place of organizing it,” Houtz recalled. “I did not think that was fair to our veterans, let alone all the other people of Roxbury Township.”
So Houtz accepted the challenge and led a successful parade, the first of many she would direct on a yearly basis - along with contributing to a myriad of other town events and programs. In recognition for all her work, the council recently presented Houtz with a certificate of appreciation and VFW Post 2833 in Kenvil gave her a “thank you” card.
“There isn’t anything you ask Christine to do that she doesn’t gratefully do,” said Roxbury Township Councilman Bob DeFillippo at the meeting. “She’s a real asset to the community.”
Houtz and her family organize a barbecue for the veterans at the VFW post after each Memorial Day parade. She also builds the balloon arches at the starting point of the annual Roxbury multiple sclerosis (MS) walk, helped run 2012’s “Lace Up for Jake” 5K event, and along with other volunteers, pots plants and places flags along the Landing bridge area for the Beautify Landing project.
Houtz takes her duties with the parade and the VFW barbecue very seriously because Memorial Day is about respecting more than just the people that served, she said. “A lot of people don’t realize, that yes, you have a man or a woman who goes off into the military and possibly into a war, and sometimes they don’t take into account the families they’ve left at home,” Houtz said.
Houtz’s son served in the Navy as a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic, and while his men went overseas to war, he did not. “But still, to have that going through the back of your head: That your loved one not only could be possibly killed, but what are they doing at different times of day?” Houtz said. “The emotion that it plays on a loved one back home ... People need to take the time also to say thank you to the families that are here.”
Houtz tries her best to thank them at the barbecue with burgers donated from Fuddruckers and hot dogs, salads and baked beans from Bryan’s Luncheonette. She said meeting the veterans, hearing their stories and understanding their feelings, as they cry telling them, makes it all worth it.
She also does it to educate others about the experiences of veterans.
“Our youth needs to hear their stories,” Houtz said. “Some of the youth only understand that Memorial Day is a parade of fun and picnics. We’re trying to remind everyone what the true meaning of that day is.”
That’s what made what happened this spring so tough. The night before the parade, a strong storm approached, promising torrential rains and powerful winds. Houtz spent the evening shifting between checking weather apps and eyeing the forecast on the TV. One of her sons had to intervene to keep her sanity.
“He was banning me from the television because I kept watching and watching,” Houtz said.
Eventually, she was forced to make the difficult decision to cancel the parade. She spent three hours that night calling participants with the news to make sure no one would be caught in the rain the next morning, she said.
Except, it turned out to be a perfectly sunny day. The storm came before daybreak, but blew through quicker than anyone anticipated. Houtz said it was the toughest moment she’s had in her volunteering history.
“It broke my heart to cancel the parade,” Houtz said. “Not only just all the work that was put out in months prior, but to think about all those people that sit on the sidelines cheering on people. Veterans need that. They need to know that people remember, they need to know they have not forgotten. And on that specific day, it’s the moments when you’re standing next to a friend in a hole, or standing next to a friend near a tree, or near a building, and these people are being killed. Memorial Day is all about their friends that were with them that didn’t come home with them.”
Even without the parade, they were still able to host the picnic at the VFW post, and Houtz anticipates getting many more chances to oversee the Memorial Day events in the future.
And when there comes a year where she’s unable to run the parade, Houtz is hoping there will be someone in town with similar values to take charge. “I would hope that ... somebody’s gonna jump up right behind me, and do exactly what I do,” Houtz said. “Because it should not be forgotten.”
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