Indiana Blue Star Salute Honors and Supports Military Families
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
For years, Ralph “Zoc” Zoccolillo, an Army veteran, has been a member of the Avon American Legion Post 145. One day the post commander told Zoccolillo about a national program called Blue Star Salute, designed to honor military families. Nobody had initiated any such program in Avon, so he asked if Zoccolillo would be willing to do so. He was all about it.
“I’ve volunteered for the last 50 years with various organizations that help those in need – places like the United Way and the Red Cross,” he says. “Volunteering is the highlight of my life. I love every minute of it.”
Zoccolillo held the first Avon Blue Star Salute in 2006. Though the mission was to honor military and veteran families, organizers recognized that they had military and veteran families that extended beyond Avon, so the following year they changed the name to Hendricks County Blue Star Salute. Zoccolillo created an executive board, and the program was so well-received that they expanded to cover the entire state. That’s when the name transitioned to Indiana Blue Star Salute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Though the majority of members are from central Indiana, they have families from as far as Evansville and Fort Wayne.
Every year on the second Saturday in December, the Indiana Blue Star Salute leaders set aside a day to honor, support and celebrate military families at the Hendricks County 4-H Fairgrounds. At first the idea was simply to salute the families, but as Zoccolillo and others got to talking to these families, they realized many of them were struggling financially. They changed the format to focus on helping to make the holidays brighter for 16 to 20 families. Known as the Indiana Blue Star Spirit of Christmas, the event is not open to the public because organizers want to keep the atmosphere intimate and special.
Two months prior to the event, Zoccolillo and the board collect names and contact information from the VFW, the American Legion and different branches of military service, to identify families who could use a dose of help and cheer. The children from each family fill out a wish list that includes three items they would like to get from Santa.
“We always get them number one on their list, and depending on funding, may also get numbers two and three,” Zoccolillo says. “We purchase something for the parents too. That might be a dishwasher, a range, an oven or refrigerator.”
One year they gave a combat veteran a used vehicle because he had no transportation to get to work.
Each family gets their own table, each containing their gifts.
“There are tables upon tables upon tables of wrapped gifts,” Zoccolillo says. “The kids get so fidgety because they can’t wait to unwrap those presents. When I give the go-ahead to unwrap, all hell breaks loose.”
Initially the Spirit of Christmas event was held outdoors at the fairgrounds, but after encountering some bad weather one year, in 2017 Zoccolillo asked Steve Patterson, executive director of the Hendricks County 4-H Fairgrounds, to move the event inside. Patterson was happy to help, offering them the Expo Hall.
“I have to say that if it were not for Steve, I don’t know how far the program would have gotten,” Zoccolillo says. “The kind of support he’s provided us all these years has been amazing. Steve provides us the room and anything else we could ever need. He even helps us set up. He’s an incredible person.”
Through the years the Spirit of Christmas has gained a number of loyal sponsorships and partners, enabling the Indiana Blue Star Salute to provide for veterans’ and their families’ needs, year round.
“We get a lot done because of the respect we have developed over the years through our organization,” Zoccolillo says.
They limit the event to 20 families because they convert the Expo Hall into an extravagant winter wonderland, by hanging countless red and green lights, decorating multiple Christmas trees and building a beautiful, ornate stage. They also hire face painters for the kids, and have games and videos. What’s most entertaining for children, however, are the musical performances by Elsa and Anna from “Frozen.” Blue, the mascot for the Indianapolis Colts, also makes an appearance, as does Rowdie from the Indianapolis Indians and Freddy Fever from the Indiana Fever.
“It’s essentially a Christmas carnival for the children,” Zoccolillo says. “We want to make it a festive, incredible Christmas for these families.”
One of the event highlights is made possible thanks to Charlie Walker, who owns Indiana Air Search and Rescue. Walker delivers Mr. and Mrs. Claus via a Huey military helicopter. They land at the fairgrounds, which is exciting for attendees.
“The younger children start hearing that sound of a helicopter and look up at the sky,” Zoccolillo says.
Margaret Amos, 181st Airman, has more than 15 years of experience working with the Indiana Air National Guard, and serves as family readiness program manager. She says it’s a blessing to have a program such as Indiana Blue Star Salute to support service members and their families, because while many agencies and programs help the active-duty bases, Indiana doesn’t have a significant visual military presence.
“Indiana has community armories with those members who volunteer to be a part of an Army unit or Air Wing that is state and federally tasked,” says Amos, who is also a mother of a service member. “The two Wings in Indiana are appreciative of the support we receive through their programs offered.”
Amos is eternally grateful to Indiana Blue Star.
“I appreciate all they do to recognize the service of our members, those that have stepped up, taken the oath and accept where they are sent, whether that is to support the COVID mission, the Operation Welcome Afghanistan mission, flooding, winter storms, or those many overseas missions.”
Zoccolillo, 74, has been retired for four years but says he feels blessed to be able to continue doing volunteer work. He has lived in Hendricks County for more than two decades, and is happy to have been in the area long enough to have established a loyal network of like-minded, patriotic souls.
“It doesn’t matter what a family might ask for,” he says. “I can pick up the phone and call someone who can help us get whatever it is that our family, soldier or veteran needs.”
To learn more about Indiana Blue Star Salute, visit facebook.com/indianabluestarsalute. To make a monetary donation to Indiana Blue Star Salute, send a check to: 8103 East U.S. Highway 36, Suite 176, Avon, IN 46123.
Zoccolillo would like to personally thank all of the American Legions and VFWs who continue to support the Indiana Blue Star.