A Living Legacy for Francis

Sgt. Francis Sommer
(May 12, 1983 - February 11, 2011)
That’s my son Francis. He loved children. This photo was taken somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan’s Peche River Valley in 2006 or 7.

On February 11, 2011, we lost Francis in a car accident. He’d been out of the Army for over three years. He’d nearly completed culinary school and was working as a chef at one of Kansas City’s premier restaurants.

Francis received treatment at the Kansas City VA Medical Center for a host of medical issues resulting from his years in the service, which included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He liked the volunteers who greeted him at the door and drove the buses. They were cheerful and helpful. He had to go there often, and he later volunteered himself, distributing clothes to homeless veterans and treating them to his own recipe for chili.

When he passed away, we had to make many quick decisions, and one was to request donations to help these men and women in lieu of flowers. We’d been told that the Voluntary Services Unit at the VA needed money for small expenses, like paying for a homeless vet to get a driver’s license or safety shoes for a new job. We guessed that a few hundred dollars might be added to their fund. Little did we imagine what happened next.

Some weeks after the funeral we were contacted by the Chief of Voluntary Services at the VA and told that donations were running into the thousands. Her department had never seen anything like this. She wept with me on the phone and asked if my wife Heather and I would approve a plan she’d conceived to use the funds in a special tribute to our son. We did, and meanwhile the generosity of donors—many of whom did not know Francis or our family, but had simply read about his passing―continued and the fund grew.

The initial plan was to assemble cooking kits and food for distribution to veterans enrolled in the Housing and Urban Development / VA Supportive Housing Program (HUD/VASH). These were vets who had fallen on hard times and were previously homeless for many reasons, such as poor physical and mental health, unemployment, and alcohol and drug addiction.

Through this program they would finally have a place to live, but now they also found themselves in kitchens with no utensils or food. The cooking kits would help them both emotionally and physically. They could cook for themselves and their families (yes, children benefit from this program too), but most importantly they’d know they are not forgotten by their countrymen.

This was, we believed, a meaningful way to honor Francis’s concern for these veterans, by remembering him through his immense talents and love for cooking.

Outfitting a new kitchen.

In the first wave, the great staff at the VA prepared and distributed over 100 cooking kits with mixing bowls, utensils, cookie sheets, dessert mix, and ingredients for spaghetti. In the next, over 170 crockpots and cookbooks were distributed. Further efforts have provided bedding and coupons to purchase household items at the Disabled American Veterans Thrift Store.

It’s important to note that these veterans benefit from regular visits to monitor their progress at re-establishing themselves as productive citizens.

New crockpots
ready for distribution.
Francis’s family has been honored many times over by the generosity of all who make this effort possible and by the thoughtful and gracious energy of the staff at the Kansas City VA Voluntary Services Department. Surely, there’s no better evidence that Francis’s spirit thrives among all of the lives he has touched.