Amidst a silent crowd of nearly 1200, the pipes and drums begin their path down the center aisle, setting a reverent tone for the morning. A lineup of police and fire chiefs representing jurisdictions across the Richmond region walk together in solidarity to the front of the ballroom. It is a scene like no other in the Richmond area; It is an event one must experience to truly experience; It is the annual Valor Awards.
On November 13, Retail Merchants will once again bring together first responders, public servants, and community leaders from across the Richmond region for the 30th year of the Annual Valor Awards, a poignant breakfast ceremony honoring those first responders who have gone above and beyond the call of the duty.
“First responders are imperative to the success of our business community and this event allows us the opportunity to honor them and their families, and the sacrifices that they make on behalf of all of us,” said Nancy Thomas, President and CEO of Retail Merchants.
To date, 358 first responders have received a Valor Award since 1989. Honorees are nominated by area Fire/EMS and Police Chiefs, and chosen by a committee comprised of retired Chiefs as well as key community leaders, based on three sets of criteria which the nominees must meet in order to receive a Gold, Silver, or Bronze Valor Award.
“Retail Merchants has always had a good relationship with first responders so [the idea] really just came from the staff’s thoughts on how we could acknowledge and support them in a way that would be meaningful to the whole community,” said Jo Anne Cole, who served as Senior Vice President for Retail Merchants until 2003, and oversaw the awards for the first decade.
While the award selection process has remained the same throughout the decades, the ceremony itself has grown increasingly more robust in size and scope. A Valor Coin of Honor, which also honored fallen first responders was added in 2014, and the ceremony has moved from its initial home in a hotel meeting room to the Greater Richmond Convention Center, where the it has graduated from one, to two, to now three ballrooms.
“We wanted to make it more inclusive,” said Thomas. “Initially it was left to the chiefs to decide who could attend but as it grew, we started inviting emergency communications personnel and the academies – that was a really big deal. These young people need to understand that this career they are starting is appreciated by the community.”
Sponsorships, including longtime title sponsors Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods and Atlantic Union Bank, allow all First Responders as well as the family members of those being honored to attend the event complimentary.
At its core, the Valor Awards ceremony brings the community together, joining the city and county jurisdictions as one for a unique celebration of service, remembrance, and honor.
“The basic purpose for it has never changed, and the criteria is exactly the same as when it started,” said Cole. “It sort of gives you a tingle when you see them all up there, together in uniform.”