"We owe those who fought in the Second World War everything and we wouldn't enjoy Christmas as we know it if it wasn't for them" – the words of our Waterlooville store's community champion Jacqui Benham, who organised a magical Christmas treat for a group of veterans who are helped by a local charity she supports.
Jacqui's a passionate supporter of Project 71, which provides a range of support for the veterans, including escorting them on battlefield visits to France, Holland and Belgium during normal times.
Throughout the pandemic she has been making regular phone calls to Ron Nolan, one of the ex-servicemen and women Project 71 supports, as well as teaming up with Katy Trapani from our Havant store to organise donations of essential food and hygiene packages to the charity during the lockdowns.
Katy secured a grant from Asda's charity, the Asda Foundation, so the group could get together for the first time in 18 months this autumn and, after seeing what a good time everyone had, Jacqui arranged an extra donation from the Asda Foundation to fund a big festive get-together for a group of 15 veterans and the volunteers who care for them, complete with a meal, singers and dancers.
Jacqui has been calling former gunner Ron every week after forming a special relationship with him when she accompanied him to a D-Day 75th anniversary dinner at Southwick House, where British and American commanders planned the Normandy Landings.
She took Ron to and from the Christmas party at Waterlooville Community Centre – and he's so touched by their friendship that he even "proposed" to her with a ring from one of the Christmas crackers!
Jacqui said: "I'm really fond of them all, but Ron is my special man! We have the loveliest relationship, and I'd do anything to help him. Ron and all the veterans are so precious and we have to cherish them while we've still got them.
"The day was absolutely amazing. We had songs from the fantastic Debbie, who sings wartime favourites and songs in the vintage style, as well as some talented dancers from Classique School of Dance.
After they'd finished, the girls presented the veterans with Asda Extra Special Christmas hampers and I got goosebumps when I saw their response, as it was such a nice touch.
"Getting them all back together is so special, and really important to me. The phone calls have been a lifeline and lovely to make, but the social interaction you get when everyone's together and laughing and joking takes it to another level.
"You don't do it for their gratitude, but to see how much they were enjoying the day and being together again meant the world. Their eyes were sparkling, they were chatting, and everyone had a lovely time. I don't know how you put into words what it means to experience this, but it was a lovely feeling to be a part of it.
"I think I have the best job in the world anyway, but to see the difference an event like this makes to this group of wonderful people is so special.
"We owe those who fought in the Second World War everything and we wouldn't enjoy Christmas as we know it if it wasn't for them. The amazing thing is that they're all so humble and mater-of-fact about the heroic service they gave our country and the rest of the world.
"Christmas is a time to appreciate what you have, and to think of others. Ron will be spending Christmas Day with his family, but it does make you think about other older people who may be on their own."
Project 71 looks after 27 local veterans with the help of 40 volunteers who make regular phone calls, call round to see them, and take them to and from events.
Lorie Coffey, pictured below, who set up the charity eight years ago, thanked Jacqui and Asda for enabling the veterans to get together for the party.
She said: "It was absolutely lovely. Every time we get together or take them away there are lots of smiling faces. Some of these guys don't get out often now so the memory of doing something special like this with their mates will stay with them for weeks, and it fills my heart with joy to see it.
"Some of the veterans have been lonely, particularly during the lockdowns, and being locked up and not anybody has been so difficult for them. It's not just that they enjoy going out – we love, love, love being with them.
"You can have conversations with these people that you can't have with anyone else – not just about the war, but about life.
"They loved the hampers and I've had so much feedback saying what a wonderful time they had.
"Jacqui and Katy are the most wonderful people – always smiling and always helping, and I just want to give them a big hug."
Lorie says the support provided by Asda and the Asda Foundation via Jacqui and Katy has made a huge difference to the support they can offer to veterans – and that the charity would have struggled to continue without their help.
"These past two years have been so awful for us. We've lost a few of our veterans, and our ability to fundraise has been severely limited. Asda have helped us out significantly with financial and practical support.
"Asda, Katy and Jacqui have saved Project 71. We would have folded last year without Asda's support. It wasn't just financial – they were giving us food in the first lockdown as the veterans weren't ready for that and didn't have enough in. We were taking around food parcels and loads of essentials thanks to their help.
"Both Jacqui and Katy really care about the veterans and it meant so much that we were all able to get together like this for Christmas."