“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Joseph Campbell
I met a group recently who remain basically out of the sunshine…and the limelight. Allow me to shine a little light upon them.
This group doesn’t have a recognized name like a “pride” of lions or a “convocation” of eagles, so I’ll call this group an “homage”, an homage of heroes. Some in this homage served to keep you free to read these words on your computer screen without fear of a Ministry of Minds patrol bashing in your door. Others in this homage serve those who served for you.
I was at New York’s Nassau County Veteran’s Service Agency (VSA). It’s a place where military veterans can receive help: medical, food, transportation, housing, counseling among much other assistance, but most importantly…brotherhood.
For a more complete overview of the VSA, their mission and goals: https://www.nassaucountyny.gov/1945/Veterans-Service-Agency
Christine Sohmer, the agency’s transportation and food pantry coordinator greeted me.
As she spoke she exuded genuine compassion in her work. Her dad was a veteran and she’s with the American Legion too. When I asked why she worked here, she said, “I work at the veterans service agency, thank you to Nassau Co. Exec. Ed Mangano, but I will say when I retire don’t be surprised if I’m still in this office. I just love the appreciation the veterans feel and I love how giving the volunteers are.”
I did then proceed to witness what of she spoke.
Christine escorted me to the food pantry and introduced me to the volunteers and patrons. I met Mike Kass, an Army vet ’67 to ’69. He’s the most loquacious, the most buoyant of the group. With every word he sent a message to a perceptive listener: “I like it here. I really like what I’m doing here.”
Mike is a former collection agent, private eye and skip tracer who now performs as a volunteer driver for vets. Mike said, “Yeah, I used to be a collection agent but now I collect food for vets.” Christine told me Mike helped establish the food pantry, even naming it, Vet Mart. She said, “He’s been with us the longest, he’s a veteran veteran.”
Mike’s eyes beamed as he told me he recently picked up “20 heavy, heavy, cartons of toiletry donations from St. Josephs school in Garden City.” He laughed as he told me how he packed it all into the vehicle only to realize he couldn’t fit his hand truck in as well.
Christine said, “First graders donated toothpaste, second graders toothbrushes, third graders razors, shaving cream,toiletries, and other products.” Boy Scouts snd Girl Scouts participate too.” she said.
Pantry items come from many other sources too: Long Island Cares, Island Harvest, the American Legion, VFW, and many private individuals. I brought some food from my brother, Rod, an Army vet who recently moved into assisted living. He had some items from his former apartment he no longer had need for, like this Seinfeld, Beeferoni-size 4.2 lb can of tuna. He must have been planning on a tuna picnic for our family.
When I had gone to the VSA for some guidance in obtaining assisted living for Rod, Christine told me about the pantry and about a man who was not a vet but was inquiring for one. When he learned of the pantry he was so impressed that he later donated $1,000 to a non profit that provides support for the VSA. A blog post about my brothers and me:https://leebythesea.me/2014/07/20/a-confluence-of-circumstances/
The Nassau Co. DA’s office recently donated confiscated counterfeit patent logo jackets. A business was selling these bogus jackets and an arrest was made. The patent logo was removed and the jackets were made available to veterans.
The pantry can use just about anything that’s offered including crutches, wheelchairs, walkers, shower seats, but it’s best to call ahead and inquire.
They take books too. Mike said, “I picked up 19 garbage bags of books a woman in Oyster Bay donated.” Right now the agency even has pet toys too. An immediate need of the pantry is plastic supermarket grocery bags for the vets to use, the kind you see adrift on the streets or on our Long Island shores or found as “decor” on tree limbs. Give them here if you have too many.
I was told that a young Nassau Co. Corrections Officer comes to volunteer on his days off. Wow, not a retiree. I was amazed. I spoke with Officer John Luxmore later.
John said he read about a need for volunteers in his church bulletin. He’s not a vet but wanted to participate. He said, “I thought it would be good to do some volunteer work for guys who made sacrifices for everybody else…My uncle is a Vietnam vet.”
John, like the other volunteer drivers picks up people and brings them to medical clinics. As for the pantry he said, “We have them at least take a look, some don’t participate in the pantry some do. And that’s great because it’s all really good donated stuff and really helps them out quite a bit.”
John has a long work week but still finds time to work two days a month as volunteer. He said, “I don’t have that much free time but I figured these guys made such a sacrifice for everybody else what’s a couple days a month out of my time, ya know?”
The VSA has 13 vehicles available to them, three of which are wheelchair accessible, but they are only able to field nine each day due to a lack of drivers. An eight day notice is needed for transportation appointments. More drivers would mean better transportation availability. To volunteer you may call: 516-572-6526 or just ring them up for more info.
Participants of the VSA are vets from WWII to the Middle East wars. Mike said, “I drove a 92 year old one-legged vet. I dropped him off. He starts to hand me a five dollar bill. I said to him, ‘Sir, I don’t take any tips I work for my pleasure to help you out.’ He said, “If you don’t take this money I’m going to punch you in the face.’ Imagine? With one leg? I said, ‘Give me the money.’”
Not all vets I met were satisfied with their progress. I met a young man who calls himself “Eric”. He comes to the pantry every couple of weeks. He was discharged from the Army in 2007 and has a part time job as an administrator in a Nassau County business. But he said he wants to get an education in electronics and engineering with help from a new jobs program with town and state funding. He said, “But they ran out of money.” He added, “If the money doesn’t come through, I’m going back in.” I related Eric’s story to the VSA staff and I’m confident that if there is help for him…it will be found. To be continued…
I met, Charlotte who was working her second week as a volunteer driver. Her husband, no longer with us, was a vet. She said she recently retired from pharmaceutical sales. She said she loves to drive and loves to pick up and transport vets. Christine said, “Every single person that comes here is touched by a veteran.”
I came upon Michael who was being interviewed as a new volunteer. He was in finance and retired in May. He said, “I spent many years working at a very profitable operation and upon retiring at age 70 I found it much more productive to find an organization that is very near and dear to my heart. I’m a veteran I served two years in the European Theater.”
I spoke with VSA Deputy Director J Paul Vista a wearer of many veteran-help hats. He is also with the American Legion and the VFW, a past commander of Nassau County Council.
Paul said his big need now is getting housing for veterans. He said, “A significant amount of vets are homeless or going to be homeless. New vets coming back have to get reintegrated, they need a job, need a place to live, need a career. If you can find them shelter you can work on finding them a job.” The VSA does have sources who may provide help with security deposits. One particular vet is looking for a rental in Long Beach, his mom is in assisted living there. If you can help Paul to help a veteran he can be reached at: 516-572-6521
I spoke with Veterans Counselor Larry Mansfield who set up a non profit to receive monetary donations: Nassau County Veterans Self Help Residency Program, 855-USA-VETS. (No online link yet.) Larry agreed there is great enthusiasm at the VSA but “it’s hard work” that gets the job done. Larry said it’s only due to the leadership of the VSA Director Ralph Esposito that they have been making great progress with helping veterans.
So I met the Director of the VSA, Ralph Esposito:
The impression you get of Ralph, after only a few minutes, is street toughness. He’s a Brooklyn guy. “I’m a street kid,”he says with a raspy General Patton voice. He wasn’t born with the gravelly growl; he developed throat cancer from working the pile at the WTC. He said, “I was a fireman in Elmont, we got stationed there.” He later became Fire Commissioner of Elmont, NY.
He said a long term plan of the VSA is to get better housing for veterans who need it, and many do. He also wants to make vets aware of other veteran resources they might not know about. He told me some vets are receiving help from the Dept. of Social Services when they could be much better off with veterans benefits. Veterans will do well to contact the VSA to set up a counseling appointment. Nothing to lose, much to gain: 516-572-6546. The VSA is in building Q right behind Nassau University Medical Center (NUMC).
Ralph Esposito volunteered for the World Trade Center work that took his voice, and almost his life, as he’s volunteered so many times in his life. His work at St. Vincent DePaul society gave him the idea of the The Vet Mart which started in March of this year. Its veteran patrons have grown from 52 in April to 160 in July and is climbing as word gets around.
Ralph’s throat cancer is all gone now after two operations, one of which involved cutting his vocal cords. It left him with that wonderful voice. He growled to me, “I love helping veterans. I’ll help veterans forever.” He struck me as a very results oriented man, and not the “results oriented” that many put on their resumes. I think he doesn’t let protocol stand in the way of his priorities.
He speaks of his staff, “I’m so proud of these people. These people are top shelf, there isn’t anybody here I wouldn’t take a bullet for. We produce numbers they can’t believe and that’s because we care.” He has no tolerance for workers who might want to just mark time. “If you don’t want to help vets, I don’t need you here.” When he finishes speaking you feel a need to stand and salute…General George S Patton…sitting there before you.
Speaking of WWII combatants, Bill Campagna, an Army Anti Aircraft Gunner of that war showed up at the Vet Mart. He was with Mary, his bride of 74 years. Bill was a mere 99 years of age, he will have graced this planet with his presence one century in a few weeks.
The Campagnas’ didn’t come to the pantry to partake of it’s offerings but to obtain a list they could refer to for donations to the Vet Mart. Bill arrived with the use of a walker but left with a new Rollator walker with a seat.
Vietnam vet, Mickey Burke who in his military service loaded artillery rounds onto helicopters for transport to howitzers. Now, he told me, instead of moving howitzer rounds he transports veterans to medical clinics.
One can’t help but notice a pronounced feeling of family in everyone serving or being served here. Mike comes in even when it’s not his turn to drive. He said, “I come just to be here.” Christine said, “This is the place where people come and they give and they take, I will tell you, Mike comes here to give what he has to offer in the food pantry and driving…but he takes away so much more.”
A feeling of audacious fun pervades the VSA too. When I was told the pantry is very attentive to special-needs vets like hearing or sight impairment, Mike said with an impish grin, “We give the blind vets the outdated food.” You might discern that Mike’s the volunteer stand up comic too. When I mentioned that, he shrugged and said, “I like working here, I like the people here…its from the heart, it’s from the heart.”
As I moved about this magnificent homage, as I met the staff, as I met the volunteers, I could hear, I could feel enthusiasm again and again. It flowed from Ralph Esposito, to Christine, to every volunteer who drove a vet, who stacked a shelf with cans of beans.
America, some of you might have worked in very profitable businesses, enjoyed great financial success. But no bonus-booze business lunches, no bottom-line, self-pat-on-the-backs can match the heart happiness of people …”giving their lives to something bigger than themselves.” Some literally give their lives for it. Some dedicate their lives to it.
That’s who heroes are…that’s what heroes do.
Shedding a little light wherethesundontshine
See also my leerythesea blog: https://leebythesea.me