Volunteers step up for homeless vets at Stand Down

Needed information and services provided

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  • From left, Maddie Accurri and Raina Dhand of Sparta, with a Korean & Vietnam War veteran who serves as chaplain for the National Guard. Photos provided by PIA

  • Teen volunteers from Pass It Along at the Stand Down

  • Peter, a Vietnam War vet with his 234lb service dog Apollo.

  • From left, Chris Bassani, Zack Kroenfeld, Tony DiBernard and Manny Galicia, of A Cut Above in Sparta. They provided vets with haircuts.

  • From left, Riley Cavanaugh, Canavan Storms, Raina Dhand, all of Sparta with Brigadier General Michael L. Cunniff of The National Guard.

  • From left, volunteers Michaela Bleakley, Raina Dhand, and Canavan Storms. All are Sparta HS students. Photo by Meghan Byers

BY Meghan Byers

— Volunteers from Pass It Along and Community Hope mobilized last Saturday to bring Stand Down for Homeless Veterans to Sussex County for its second year. Held at the Sparta Evangelical Free Church, the Stand Down was one of many such events across the country providing temporary refuge for homeless veterans, and was modeled after a similar concept during the Vietnam War that offered respite to weary troops.

There are over 400,000 veterans in New Jersey, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs. Less than half are registered in the VA Health Care System.

"Not enough information is going out there so veterans can learn about the services available to them," said Norus Achmetov, who was present at the Stand Down with Welcome Home Vets of New Jersey. Achmetov himself served in the United States Army from 1966 to 1980.

"All we want to do is give them a hand and lift them up," he said.

Welcome Home Vets of NJ was one of several non-profit organizations available at the Stand Down to provide information and services. Veterans had the opportunity to receive VA Social Security benefits counseling, as well as referrals to assistance programs for housing, mental health counseling, employment, and more.

The event also offered veterans more immediate relief in the form of food, shelter, health screenings, clothing – and even haircuts, thanks to volunteers from A Cut Above barbershop in Sparta.

Twenty-two students from high schools around Sussex County gathered donations for the Stand Down, shared breakfast with the veterans, and helped set them up with the services available.

"To them it's their favorite thing, getting to talk to the vets," said Kathy Rathbone, director of annual events and clubs for Pass It Along. Rathbone said that Pass It Along became involved in the Stand Down project last year after a meeting with a community outreach specialist from Community Hope, which is the largest non-profit organization serving homeless veterans in New Jersey.

Community Hope has run a similar Stand Down in Morristown for nearly six years, but they had trouble finding enough support to hold this much-needed event for veterans in the Sussex County area – until Pass It Along supplied the volunteers.

"We said, 'We'll do it,'" said Rathbone. "You hear so much about helping the vets," she later added, "but we know we made a difference today."

Last year, the event was able to offer services to about twenty-five veterans in need, according to Rathbone. This year, about seventy-five veterans arrived on buses from Warren, Sussex, and Hunterdon counties. Many were already lined up outside the church a full hour before the event began.

Sparta High School students Michaela Bleakley, Raina Dhand, and Canavan Storms were among the Pass It Along volunteers who helped run the Stand Down.

"I think it's really important to help vets," said Bleakley. "It's cool to see that we could make a difference in someone's day."

"They served our country; they don't deserve to be homeless," said Dhand.

All three students agreed that getting the chance to speak with the veterans was the best part of their day. "It's really humbling to talk to them," Storms said.

"Up until today I didn't realize how many vets were homeless," said Bleakley.

"Or how many people alone are homeless," added Dhand.

Rathbone is hopeful that next year's Stand Down will be able to serve even more veterans.

"We want to continuously grow the event, and get more vets to come," she said. "We will always do this event."

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