Vietnam Veterans of America
When you’ve been doing something for forty years, it can start to seem effortless even when a lot of effort goes into it every time. At least, that’s the impression you get when you talk to Larry Snyder, president of Chapter 301 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, about the chapter’s continuously successful food drive every Christmas.
“Let’s see,” Snyder said, “it started in 1980 by taking three veterans to lunch.” None of those veterans had a holiday meal waiting for them. The chapter had formed only the year before, and membership at the time numbered only about eight. But the experience of helping out fellow veterans made them want to try to do more.
So the following year they collected and stored canned and dry goods in a member’s garage, chapter member Nicolas Britto said. A few days before Christmas, they distributed ten boxes of food to needy veterans in the area.
Fast forward to last Christmas, when Chapter 301—with about 140 members now—distributed some 300 boxes of food, each weighing approximately 100 pounds, for a total of 30,000 pounds. And, as has been the case for decades now, the chapter did all the (literally) heavy lifting in three days.
Snyder noted that the growth has been incremental over the years, but the chapter has been collecting and donating a lot of food for a while now. “We did 275 boxes the year before, and 250 the year before that,” he said.
The main beneficiaries are veterans and their families in need, as well as widows of veterans and, as Snyder said, “widows of any kind.”
“I got started in this when I first became a member, and I went to this older lady’s house and identified myself and told her we had a box of food for her,” he said. “She told me right then that she didn’t even know what she was going to eat for supper. I went back to my truck, got the box, and brought it into her kitchen. She had cabinet doors open, and all she had was two cans in there. She was so thankful for what we were doing. When I see someone like that, my heart opens.”
The drive itself is still a fairly simple and straightforward process, but it has a lot of moving parts—and all moving voluntarily. Starting every January and continuing through the end of November, Chapter 301 actively solicits cash donations for the drive from the community, working primarily through local churches. “Our members attend churches and they bring us back donations,” Snyder said.
The chapter also works with a local department store, which allows members to sell charity tickets to shoppers. “We get five dollars a ticket, and we normally do pretty well with just that,” Snyder said. “We have a great community where people don’t mind giving.”
It’s all done by word of mouth. No radio or TV ads, not even any Internet-based solicitations. Last year, Chapter 301 raised about $20,000, which went into a checking account until December, when it was time to start ordering food. “We purchase from several different stores, like Piggly Wiggly, Winn Dixie, and the West Alabama Food Bank,” Snyder said. “We get everything in cans and dried stuff.” Since the chapter doesn’t have the capability to refrigerate perishables, Snyder said they buy coupons from an area grocer who later exchanges those coupons for either turkeys or hams. One coupon goes into each box.
As the last weekend before Christmas day approaches, the drive kicks into, well, overdrive. All the food is ready for pick-up from the stores on that Thursday. Members and their friends and families go to the stores and load all the goods into their vehicles, and then drive them to the Tuscaloosa South Church of the Nazarene, which provides its activities building free of charge as a staging area.
On Friday, chapter members and community volunteers meet at the church and pack each box. Saturday is distribution day, when recipients come and pick up their boxes. If anyone can’t make it, Snyder said, volunteers, including himself, will deliver the boxes to them.
“Last Christmas, we delivered 35 boxes to one building that housed a lot of veterans,” Snyder said. “Another building had 15 veterans, another had 10. So, if you’re unable to come, we will bring it to you.”
To identify who qualifies for a food box, Chapter 301 works with area churches and with VA social workers in Tuscaloosa. Some of the social workers help with distribution to ensure the right people are receiving boxes. Snyder said veterans who are recipients do not have much income. The majority of the veterans are younger—those who have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A lot of those guys are really hurting,” Snyder said. “A lot of them are strung out.”
The total population of Tuscaloosa is slightly more than 100,000, according to the latest census. The Tuscaloosa News recently reported that the area is home to about 16,000 veterans. The website of the VA Medical Center in Tuscaloosa states that at least 11 percent—and possibly as much as 20 percent—of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD, often accompanied by some form of substance abuse.
While it’s not known how many of that 16,000 are Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, they clearly constitute the majority simply because they are the youngest and the ongoing war in Afghanistan continues to produce more of them.
Snyder doesn’t believe the VA has done enough to help those who need it.
“Most Vietnam veterans here are squared away,” he said. “It’s the younger veterans, the Middle East veterans. They are the worst ones coming to us now. People don’t realize they’re having a tough time. The ones coming back today are having problems, health problems, and the VA isn’t helping them as they should.”
It might be a result of inadequate resources. The Tuscaloosa VAMC only has a 21-bed residential program for substance abuse rehab, with stringent criteria for admission. Whatever the reason, though, the result is a patent need for what Chapter 301 has been doing.
Asked what the hardest part is, Snyder replied: “There are several hard parts. One is getting the money, another is getting the food to the church, then packing the boxes and then delivering. But we get a lot of young people to help us. So, the community is volunteering as well as giving money. And we make it fun when they all come out. We have fun.”
How much longer can the fun last?
“I don’t know,” Snyder said. “Maybe until some of our younger vets are no longer with us. I say ‘younger,’ and I’m one of them and I’m 70 years of age. I guess we’ll do it until we can’t do it any longer.”
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