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Detroit high school students raise up homeless veterans in death

Teens from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School volunteer to serve as pallbearers for homeless veterans.

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Detroit Jesuit High School volunteers serve as pallbearers at a funeral of a homeless military veteran at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Mich., Oct. 20. The new service project at the high school isn’t the typical volunteer experience at a soup kitchen or nursing home. More than 50 University of Detroit Jesuit High students have signed up to serve as pallbearers at the funerals of homeless men and women.

Carlos Osorio/AP

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A group of Detroit high school students is stepping up to make sure homeless military veterans receive honor and dignity in death.

Junior and senior students at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School are acting as pallbearers for homeless men and women who might otherwise have no friends, family, or old Army buddies at their graveside or funeral.

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About 50 teenagers signed up to be trained as pallbearers. The group says it is inspired by the actions of Joseph of Arimathea, a biblical figure who is thought to have cared for Jesus's body after his crucifixion.

"We kind of represent the family that is not here to be with them. And that is, I think, a privilege," senior Lenny Froehlich told the Associated Press.

"I think for the young men here at U of D, it teaches them the value and dignity of life at all levels," Todd Wilson, a faculty member, who leads the school's service team told the wire service.

The idea for a student-led pallbearer program was conceived during a student discussion about ways the student service team could better serve the community. It is similar to a program at another Jesuit high school, St. Ignatius, in Cleveland.

A report released in 2014 by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found there were about 50,000 homeless veterans in the United States. There has since been a major national push to end homelessness among veterans. In January, New Orleans became the first major city to house all of its veterans. Cities and states around the country have made strides in this area, but untethered veterans still struggle in many communities.

The national organization Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program provides similar funeral services for veterans across the country. The program is a cooperative effort and attempts to give veterans proper burial services, including donating the casket, arranging the military ceremony, and coordinating with the Department of Veteran Affairs to provide a headstone and burial at a national cemetery.

Earlier this week, four homeless Knox County, Tennessee, veterans were buried with full military honors courtesy of Dignity Memorial. 

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Founded in St. Louis in 2000, Dignity Memorial has conducted more than 1,000 funerals in 35 US cities.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.