Austin Rigal, 14, an eighth-grader at Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, got more than 200 sponsors to fund wreaths for veterans at Palm Beach Memorial Park Cemetery in Lantana, with help from his father, Robert Rigal. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Larry Keller
Doing good was never so hard for Austin Rigal. Every year around the holidays, the 14-year-old picks a charity or two to support. In December, he settled on Wreaths Across America, an organization that coordinates annual wreath-laying ceremonies at veterans’ graves nationwide, including Arlington National Cemetery. In doing so, Austin discovered that Palm Beach Memorial Park Cemetery in Lantana had sponsors for only 19 wreaths, although 200 veterans are buried there.
An eighth-grader at Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Austin hoped to persuade friends and others to sponsor wreaths at $15 each. But he had barely begun when he learned the deadline had passed. So he told his parents, Robert and Ingrid Rigal, that he would like to sponsor the 181 wreaths that the cemetery’s general manager needed to reach her goal.
Robert made sure his son understood what that entailed and offered to split the tab. Austin’s share was about $1,350.
It was doable, however, because although Austin doesn’t get an allowance, he sets aside money he receives from gifts and so forth. His dad pays him a generous amount of interest to encourage him to save. He does the same for Austin’s 10-year-old sister, Lauren, whose most recent charities were Operation Smile and the ASPCA.
After the deadline passed, the website at Saint Andrew’s posted an item about Austin’s efforts. Teachers and parents then sponsored wreaths, and some volunteered at the ceremony. The cemetery not only received 200 wreaths for veterans’ graves, but also sponsors for 45 more that will be applied to next year’s event.
But first, another hurdle arose. On the eve of the Dec. 23 ceremony, logistical issues prevented all the wreaths from being delivered on time.
“The staff from the funeral home and my family drove around and bought wreaths the night before to fill the gap. Ultimately, we got enough wreaths,” Robert Rigal says.
In the end, all turned out well. Some of Austin’s friends showed up to volunteer at the ceremony. So did his sister and a few of her friends. A school security guard who is a Marine Corps veteran came. A few wounded veterans were there. There were Boy Scouts, and fire department personnel did a presentation of the colors. A priest spoke.
And something else happened that was unexpected. Cemetery officials presented Austin with a display case containing emblems from all the service branches and the Pledge of Allegiance.
“He really appreciated it and now it holds a prominent place for him in his room,” his dad says. “It ended up being a great event.”
“It was much better than I thought it would be,” Austin says. “I didn’t expect that many people to come.”
Wreaths Across America wasn’t a surprising choice for Austin to support. “I’ve been interested in military history and the Marine Corps ever since I can remember,” he says. “My dad is a former Marine. I’ve always loved the Marine Corps and interesting battles. I plan on going to the Naval Academy and becoming an officer.”
Other charities he has supported include the Wounded Warrior Project, Shriners Hospitals for Children and an organization that builds houses for veterans with disabilities.
Charity work is a pleasure, Austin says. It wasn’t the gift from the cemetery or compliments from friends and teachers — even the woman who cuts his hair — that meant the most in the aftermath of his effort at the Lantana cemetery.
“It’s an amazing feeling to know that you’re helping somebody, and people who sacrificed for their country for people like us,” Austin says.
“So being able to give back to them, even after they have passed away, feels great. It doesn’t matter if it’s a veteran or not, it feels great to help people in need, people who deserve better.”