Twelve days before Christmas 2011, Kryste Buoniconti had to tell her three children their dad was gone forever. Last week she gave away his old uniforms and other clothing to the homeless in her community. In one of the pockets she put this note:
"This coat belonged to Frank. He was 36 when he died in the service of our country. He would have wanted you to be warm. Be warm. Be well."
Killed with three other soldiers in a Kiowa training accident at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wa., CW3 Frank Buoniconti's death exploded that holiday season and the months that followed into a mine field of grief and hurt as his family figured out what it meant to live in a world without him. As many war widows before her and since have done, Kryste struggled to figure out what normal meant in a military town where all that remained for them was the ghost of sacrifice.
But Kryste isn't the type of woman to sit around. And while grief spilled out of her, she poured herself into making sure something good did come out of the tragedy. She jokingly accepted the title of "Bossy Widow" as she pushed friends and family to donate in Frank's name to pay off adoption debt and raise money to fund grants to help military families pay for pending adoptions. Funds raised through a memorial t-shirt sale helped fund the construction of a health clinic in Uganda.
By August of 2012 - eight months after Frank's death - Kryste had decided to expand her fundraising efforts into a more official capacity by forming a non-profit "Live Your Love Loud," a phrase she had read at Frank's memorial service.
"I was lucky enough to be married to man who had a huge heart, a generous spirit and a fire in his gut for helping others. We made a good team. I cannot sit and do nothing. I cannot only think about myself and my pain, my loss, my broken-heartedness. I have to DO something," she wrote on her blog at the time.
Since then Live Your Love Loud has done just that. They have raised about $30,000 as grants for 12 adoptions, orphan prevention, widow care, homeless outreach, foster children outreach and wounded veteran outreach. And in her own community outside the gates of Lewis-McChord Kryste, with the help of volunteers, has assembled and personally delivered to homeless or dropped off at shelters 300 hygiene kits, snacks, hand warmers, cold weather gear, 60 first aid kits, boots and clothing. They sponsor a family in Ethiopia of a widowed grandmother and her three granddaughters. And they are collecting backpacks, small luggage and toiletries for foster kids in the Lewis-McChord area.
Watching Kryste work is inspiring and heart breaking all at the same time. When she gives to the homeless, she doesn't ask why they are there or question their stories. She gives because she has to, because Frank would've wanted her to, because she has been called to live her love loud and make sense of her grief through giving.
Recently she talked about Frank to Jerry, one of the homeless men she visits regularly.
"I told him that Frank was the type of guy who would have taken him over to McDonald's and bought him lunch and sat and talked to him. Jerry asked me 'do you think that's a good thing?' I asked him 'What do you think about that?' He said 'I think that's a good thing,'" she told me. "Most of these guys are proud people. Most of these guys know they messed up along the way and they possibly don't 'deserve' what we do for them. I do not ask the sordid details of their lives and decisions. I show compassion, I listen, I treat them like humans. I let my kids get ouf of the car and talk to and high-five them."
Not long ago we ran a contributor's piece here on SpouseBuzz about how we should react to homeless veterans. I was on the fence about that. On the one hand, after all that our service men and women have given for our country, faking veteran status so you can get more change on a corner is pretty reprehensible. On the other hand, my heart breaks for the homeless -- regardless of whether or not they are faking that or their veteran status. There has to be something pretty crazy in your life to bring you to that point, and that alone is worth compassion.
But when I see Kryste moving forward and helping in spite of her own pain, I see what I want to be. Even though her own family has sacrificed so much in service, she doesn't care if someone is faking being a vet or not. She gives anyway.
She gives out of compassion, she gives out of service. She gives because Frank gave it all and she should in her own way, too.
If you want to help Live Your Love Loud with their mission you can donate over here. Or you can do your own loving in your own community. Get out of your car and talk to the homeless. Volunteer at a shelter or soup kitchen. And live love loud this holiday season.
Editor's note: Since this story was originally published Live Your Love Loud has taken an organizational pause, but Kryste is still doing work, marshaling her friends to donate for both an annual holiday drive she calls Franksgiving, and to support foster parents and others year round.
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