Give Danielle Russell the name of any fallen Gilroy soldier, from the Civil War to present, and she can not only pinpoint the location of their grave at Gavilan Hills Memorial Park, but she can also share their personal stories, many of which have been lost to time.
The Christopher High School senior has spent hundreds of hours over the past two years cataloguing every veteran who is buried at the cemetery, recreating decades-old maps that she said were plagued with misspellings and wrong names.
Through the painstaking process, which involved tracking down relatives, service records and other historical documents, Russell discovered there are more veterans buried at Gavilan Hills than what was previously known, especially from the Civil War era.
Thanks to her efforts, more wreaths than ever before will be placed at the cemetery during the annual Wreaths Across America this week.
Wreaths Across America, which began in 1992 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, has expanded to include wreath-laying ceremonies at thousands of veterans’ cemeteries and other locations in all 50 states and beyond.
Russell’s passion for history was sparked in elementary school, when one of her teachers suggested she read the “Dear America” book series.
She was hooked.
In seventh grade, she received an assignment from a teacher to research her family history up to her great-grandparents. However, Russell took it much further.
“I already know my great-grandparents,” she said. “I said, ’this is not enough for me.’ I got all the way back to 1475.”
At the age of 16, Russell applied with the City of Gilroy for its historian position, but was turned down because of her young age. She is now the resident historian for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6309.
After graduating from Christopher High, Russell plans to attend Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where she will study American history and archival studies.
She said there have been more than 50 relatives in her family that have served in wars throughout history.
“The amount of them that died without wives or children and just were forgotten, it’s really hard,” Russell said. “I don’t like that feeling of knowing that they’ve been lost. I don’t want anyone else to be lost.”
That is what drives her to catalogue the veterans at Gavilan Hills.
“It makes me feel good to know that they will not be forgotten like my family members have been,” she said. “I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for my family.”
Wreaths Across America organizer Mark Turner said Russell’s efforts perfectly align with the organization’s principles of “remember, honor and teach.”
“It’s so invaluable,” he said. “This has a really far-reaching impact on so many different organizations who work with veterans groups and honor our past veterans.”
The Gilroy Foundation will also facilitate financial donations that will go toward repairing headstones and purchasing medallions to mark the graves of buried veterans. A donation button will be added to the foundation’s website at gilroyfoundation.org, or donors can mail checks to the Gilroy Foundation at PO Box 774, Gilroy, California, 95021.
Russell frequently posts photos and stories of veterans that she has gathered from her research. For information, visit honoringourheroes.wixsite.com/foreverhonoring and instagram.com/honoring_our_heroes_ca.