Volunteers pack backpacks for homeless veterans

rcopley@herald-leader.comJanuary 18, 2014 

Community Action Council volunteer Ka'Sondra Brown was just getting ready to brief volunteers at the Charles Young Community Center Saturday morning when she got a key donation: two backpacks.

"That's 200!" she exclaimed.

This is the third year the Community Action Council has helped organize a drive to load backpacks with necessities for homeless veterans as part of the Day of Service celebration on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. For the project, the council partners with the Hope Center, which will distribute the backpacks through its veterans programs.

"When she asked me how many backpacks we needed, I said, 'Oh, 200,' not thinking we would actually get that many," said Benjamin Wides, veterans coordinator for the Hope Center.

Backpacks, Wides said, are valuable commodities for people who are homeless because they hold and protect most of the person's possessions and look better than plastic bags in situations such as job interviews.

At the Charles Young center, the backpacks were loaded with toiletries, socks, sweaters, blankets and bottled water.

Among the 48 volunteers who turned out to help load backpacks were Marines reserves from Lexington-based Military Police Company Alpha.

"We wanted to come out and help show the community cares," said Gunnery Sgt. Gil Stubbs. "Small gestures like this go a long way to showing the gratitude."

Stubbs said that the nation is just starting to realize the difficulties military personnel face returning to civilian life, particularly after multiple and extended deployments during wars in the Middle East.

"On the one hand, we greet them as heroes," Stubbs said. "But on the other hand, there are stigmas associated with being a veteran."

Wides said the Hope Center houses around 70 veterans a day and has a two-year program supported by the Veterans Administration to help get veterans who have become homeless get back on their feet. One recipient of that help was former Marine Charles Griffin, who was on hand to help pack backpacks Saturday.

"I'm giving back something that was given to me," the 60-year-old Vietnam War veteran said. "It's programs like this that lift you up and make you think things will be better."

Donations for the project are gathered through the year, said Danita Coulter, volunteer coordinator for senior programs at the Community Action Council. She said the backpack program is one of the initiatives supported by a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service.

"It's the least we could do," said Velma Dunson of Foster Grandparents, one of several organizations that sent out volunteers Saturday. She had participated in all three backpack drives and marveled that the first year they only packed 30, and this year it was 200.

For most, participating in the program was an ideal way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader whose birthday is celebrated with a national holiday on Monday.

"Giving back is what he was all about," Wides said.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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