Nov. 8, 2022 — It was 1994. When a national holiday justified a patriotic display, veteran Steve Olienyk headed out before his work day at Oregon Pacific Bank and put out 35 American flags at various spots around Florence.
It was a lot of work for one man.
“I knew we needed more volunteers, so I prevailed upon our Kiwanis Club to take over the previous flag program,” said Olienyk. “Kiwanis stepped up big time.”
Now, 28 years later, the Florence Kiwanis Flag Program has become a fundraising project that provides financial support in the form of charitable giving to local youth programs and other community projects in the Florence and Mapleton areas.
The number of flags varies depending on who you ask, but with the help of Kiwanis members and community volunteers, over 500 flags are placed out at least 10 days per year, including Rhododendron Festival days and major holidays.
The presence of these flags enables businesses and individuals alike to display their patriotism and community support without having to use their own resources. As a flag sponsor, businesses pay for each flag to be displayed along Highways 101 and 126, Kingwood Street, Ninth Street, Spruce Street, Historic Old Town and other pre-defined locations.
The Kiwanis Club of Florence provides the flag, the pole, maintenance and the labor for this program.
Olienyk is still putting up flags and that commitment to patriotism comes from experiences throughout his entire life, starting when he was a young teacher before World War II.
“After I graduated from high school at age 16, I got a teaching certificate and taught for 3 years in a one-room schoolhouse that we built on the North Dakota plains,” recalled Olienyk. “Most of my students were from Ukrainian farming families. We all knew their parents had faced oppression and hard lives in the Old Country. The daily ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ in my classroom was a ritual of deep respect and gratitude. Our American flag has always held great promise and pride for me. This reverence for our flag’s freedoms grew even stronger as I served in Tokyo during WWII.”
Since then, Olienyk has done his darndest to spread that respect, gratitude, promise and pride, especially to young people, like he was when he first felt the patriotism brewing inside.
“It’s always been important to our Kiwanis Club that we include young people in our service projects,” Olienyk said. “We want to support and mentor our youth so they can feel a part of our team and that their voices are heard. We want our young volunteers to feel proud of their hard work, leadership skills, community service and citizenship.”
Two area youth who have had the opportunity to feel that pride, are brother and sister Patrick and Adrienna Sneddon, thanks to the leadership of their father Aric. For five years, Aric and his kids have held down a route putting up flags around Florence and, as expected, the patriotism is spreading.
"It makes me feel like I live in a town that has freedom and pride,” said Adrienna.
Olienyk is pleased to see a tradition he started continuing all over the community.
“I’m deeply grateful to our flag teams for going above and beyond,” he said. “May the colors of our country’s flags waving along Florence streets remind us that we are all connected to one another. May we continue to work together as proud citizens of our nation.”
As has been the case all over the country since COVID-19 started spreading in early 2020, things have been hard on some, so hard that it seems to even be affecting the Kiwanis Flag Program.
“I think the pandemic has been very hard for people,” said Olienyk. “I see that people are still struggling. There is still some pain and division. It makes me sad that a few people are throwing flags into the ditch or stealing them. We need to come together as a community regardless of our differences to show tolerance and understanding. This kind of unity is what our country was founded on.”
A handful of the program’s flags have been stolen, knocked down or destroyed.
“The Kiwanis flags are a labor of love, and we delight in the community’s support of our flag displays,” Olienyk said. “If you happen to see someone tampering with a Kiwanis Flag, please respond by immediately contacting the Florence Police Department at the non-emergency phone number 541-997-3515.”
In another amazing display of community support, since fall 2021, the Kiwanis have loaned their flags to the Siuslaw Viking varsity football team.
Before each home football game, members of the football team, through the coordination of Kiwanis Past President Megan Messmer, line the fence surrounding Hans Petersen Memorial Field with American flags, adding a big dose of Americana to an already electric “Friday Night Lights” atmosphere.
Florence Kiwanis is always looking to add to its list of flag sponsors. For more information, go to florencekiwanis.org.