By Sean Allen, for The Sachem
Original read here.

611 Harvard Squadron Day an offer of family fun from youth group

In some ways, the 611 Harvard Squadron Air Cadets is the little squadron that could.

The Dunnville-based youth program punches well above its weight when it comes to the discipline, success and engagement of its members and graduates.

That success takes a whole community.

“We’re a small town and our budget is quite small by comparison,” commanding officer Capt. Richard Twelves said, noting some air cadet squadrons in the Niagara Air Group have a budget 10 times that of the 611 Harvard.

“We need to do things that draw and maintain our numbers with what we do in the community.”

To that end, for the fourth year in a row Dunnville’s Lions Park was filled with family fun in the form of inflatables, food, entertainment, a dunk tank, a rock climbing wall and a car show on Saturday for 611 Harvard Squadron Day.

“The community of Dunnville … supports us every step of the way,” Twelves said. “The businesses, the schools, the service clubs, the Rotary Club – the reason we are so successful is because of them.

“This is our way of giving back, saying ‘this day is for you and you’ve been great for us.'”

Adding a vendors market and classic car and bike show to the day’s events was expected to generate more attendance than the usual 750 that stop by for the fun.

The Royal Canadian Air Cadet program is funded by the Department of National Defence and offered free to youths between the ages of 12 and 18. Cadets meet once a week at the Dunnville legion for training, in addition to other activities such as band, camping, sports and leadership training.

Ten new cadets signed on this year with the squadron – before they did any targeted recruiting.

“In the next six weeks, the plan is to visit as many as 22 schools in the area for a recruiting drive,” Twelves said, suggesting he hopes to increase the ranks from the current 31 closer to 50.

“With those numbers and our current leadership group, this squadron will go right to the top of the (Niagara Air Group), the (Western Ontario Area) and perhaps even among the top in Ontario.”

The 611 Harvard Squadron works with both the Dunnville legion and Dunnville Chamber of Commerce to help with event management. Each November, members of the air cadets stand guard at the cenotaph before Remembrance Day services, while other members of the squadron participate in an Honour March of one kilometre for every year since the Second World War.

The key to such a successful and engaged squadron starts at the top.

“You have to have a real strong, tough, aggressive, well-trained group at the top of the squadron,” Twelves said. “From the chief on down, they have to know what they’re doing.”

For the 611 Harvard Squadron, that’s Warrant Officer 2nd Class Jonathan DeGoise.

“I fully expect this year for him to win the Battle of Britain Sword as the top squadron warrant officer in the (Niagara Air Group),” Twelves said. “And he’s just 16 years old.”

There are nine squadrons in the Niagara Air Group and a cadet from the 611 Harvard Squadron has taken home the Battle of Britain Sword six of the past 10 years.

The deputy commander to DeGoise is Flight Sergeant David Heffner.

“He is equally as talented and driven,” Twelves said. “Both of them have the intent, right out of high school, to go to (the Royal Military College in Kingston).”

DeGoise wants to be an aeronautical engineer and air traffic controller for the Canadian Forces. Heffner, meantime, is aiming for the stars.

“He wants to be a jet pilot, and ultimately follow in the footsteps of Cmdr. (Chris) Hadfield and hopefully be a pilot someday in space.”

Twelves admits it may sound grandiose, but he notes that the air cadets program in Milton was where Hadfield got his start.

The Air Cadet League of Canada, which is a civilian arm that supports the Department of National Defence in the delivery of the Royal Canadian Air Cadet program, estimates that 20 per cent of private pilots in Canada started in the program and two-third of commercial airline pilots are former cadets.

Four cadets that have graduated from the 611 Harvard Squadron in the past 12 years currently fly jets for the Canadian Forces.

“The cadet program in Canada is the best kept secret in Canada,” Twelves said. “Bar none, it’s the best youth program there is because of what we can give these kids.”

This year’s 11th annual Honour March will be 71 kilometres for the cadets, taking them from Hagersville, through Smithville and Cayuga, before returning to Dunnville. The last kilometre of the march is on Nov. 11, where a piper and drummer will lead the cadets to the cenotaph to complete the Honour March just in time for the moment of silence to begin at 11 a.m.

The event raises funds for the Tony Stacey Centre for Veterans Care in Toronto. Affiliated with Sunnybrook Hospital, the centre is a long-term care facility specializing in caring for veterans. The 611 Harvard Squadron has raised $60,000 in the past 10 years for the centre.

Those interested in learning more about the squadron can visit their open house on Tuesday, Oct. 4, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 142, 305 Queen St., in Dunnville.