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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Mike Parson meets with local first responders Thursday as part of Operation Thank You, organized by the Spirit of Liberty Foundation, at the Jefferson City Memorial Airport. The Spirit of Liberty Foundation is an organization based in San Diego that has been flying around the United States with the goal of visiting every single state and thanking health care workers for their sacrifices and hard work during the pandemic. Photo by Liv Paggiarino / News Tribune.

Local hospital staff and Gov. Mike Parson were among the people who were greeted Thursday at Jefferson City Memorial Airport during a national flying relay that honors health care workers.

Skip Helmly, with the Spirit of Liberty Foundation, handed off a red, white and blue torch to Parson and others — a symbol to remind people to thank anyone they know who's serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"These are the people who serve us every day," Helmly said of "hometown heroes and first responders."

"They serve us without question. Some do it by fighting COVID-19," he said.

The Spirit of Liberty Foundation has partnered with the San Diego Air & Space Museum and sponsors including the American Hospital Association and about a half dozen aviation associations to propel "America's Operation Thank You."

Helmly said the foundation considers America's greatest generation to be its World War II-era veterans, but "we also believe that America's next greatest generation are our heroes in the trenches fighting COVID-19."

Parson, a former sheriff, said: "I think of all those people over the years that I've seen in the emergency field; you can never say enough about what they do every day."

"They do the things that none of us want to do, and they put their lives, their families at risk," he added.

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Over the past eight months, most people have had a chance to take a step back from the fray, but not the people on the front line, Parson said as he motioned to a group of health care workers from Capital Region Medical Center and SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital standing on the tarmac with him:

From Capital Region: Rita Johnson, a registered nurse in the emergency room; Tanya Rollins, an intensive care unit RN; and Michelle Breau, an ICU/PCU supervisor.

From St. Mary's: Glenda Raithel, a nursing director; and Rhonda Shimmens, director of interventional services.

Breau said the gesture of gratitude Thursday meant a lot for all health care workers, and Raithel and Shimmens said they were honored to represent SSM and front line workers.

Helmly said the foundation was going to do a cross-country trip over the summer — usually it's veterans who are honored — but with the pandemic, it was decided health care workers and other first responders should receive tribute.

He said he usually arrives on a private plane at each destination but flew commercially into Columbia for Thursday's event.

Off the top of his head, he estimated he had been to about 30 places so far, with 50-60 left to go.

He said Thursday was the 14th day of a 38-day relay to 98 locations in 48 states.

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The plan for the close of the relay on Oct. 30 is to have more than 100 health care heroes and first responders at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., carry the "Spirit of Liberty torch, Love Healthcare Heroes Flag and America's Flag — all 50 state flags sewn together to create a dramatic 15' x 35' flag embodying our nation's unity — from the U.S. Capitol down the National Mall to the White House to be honored once again," according to the foundation's website.

Parson gave Helmly a folded Missouri flag Thursday.

The Spirit of Liberty Foundation, based in Rancho Santa Fe, California, was originally formed to raise money for and assistance in the restoration and maintenance of the Statute of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York, according to a news release.

However, after the restoration was finished, and since 9/11, the foundation changed its name and expanded its mission — "enhancing the meaning of liberty and supporting America's heroes, our armed forces who volunteer to risk their lives to protect the freedoms and liberties that Americans enjoy every day, with an emphasis on honoring and supporting active duty, veterans and their families," according to the nonprofit's website.

Honoring and supporting first responders was added to that mission in 2017.

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