By ANGELA NIMS
Special to the Sunday Times
WYANDOTTE — It wasn’t the bells from the village below ushering in peace of mind for Downriver veterans this Christmas. Armed with volunteers, and a stunning turnout from the community and local businesses, Ann Graham and her friends set to the task of delivering Christmas cheer, one veteran at a time.
By all accounts, they succeeded.
On Downriver for Veterans’ Facebook page, Alicia Williams posted, “Merry Christmas to all of the people with Downriver for Veterans who helped make this such a Merry Christmas for my family! Haven’t seen smiles this big on my uncle’s face in a long time. I’m truly grateful.”
Smiles have been in abundance. Only a month ago, on Thanksgiving Day, the seed of the veterans’ assistance group — specifically for the Downriver area — was sown.
“My friends and I were helping to prepare and serve Thanksgiving dinner at the VFW,” Downriver for Veterans CEO Ann Graham said. “The mayors of Wyandotte and Woodhaven were both on hand, helping with everything. It was just a wonderful experience. And the gratitude. I went, ‘This is what we need to be doing.’”
While Detroit has several support systems for veterans, such a network is lacking outside of the metropolitan area, Graham said. There’s a smattering of help to be found, but one needs to find it.
“If a veteran needs shoes, they’ll have to go to downtown Detroit for it,” Graham said. “We need a chain of supply here.”
Iraq War veteran Daniel Jay agreed.
“There was really no big assistance for vets Downriver,” he said. “It’s here, but it’s really tough to find. The Michigan Department of Works on Northline (in Taylor) — they’re there Wednesdays and Thursdays. That’s great, but it would be an enormous help to us to have them Monday through Friday. Most of the time, we just get sent back downtown anyway.”
Public interest in helping veterans was a vein that could be tapped, with the right dedication, Graham said.
“I cast it around to my girlfriends after that Thanksgiving dinner and we launched our own non-profit. It’s been a whirlwind.”
The Facebook page is already brimming with more than 440 followers. Hitting the ground running, Downriver for Veterans began the “Totes of Love” non-perishable food drive. It quickly became apparent locals were happy to donate more than just canned goods.
Graham and crew accept it all.
“The veterans need everything,” Graham said. “It’s just heartbreaking to see.”
The Goodfellows forwarded her the phone number of a World War II veteran. When she delivered dinner to him, telling him a bit about what she and her friends are spearheading, he sheepishly asked if there was any way she could get him a new couch. The one in his living room was a tattered mess.
“In fact, it was the neighbor’s trash,” Graham said. “He needed a couch, and saw them throwing away this one. It was all he could manage. Can you believe that? A World War II veteran of ours, having to scrounge through the trash for something to sit on? I told him we’d definitely do something, but I had to excuse myself then. Didn’t want to cry in front of him.”
A couch has since been secured for the veteran.
Connecting the needs to the haves is a full-time endeavor.
“I left a $16-an-hour job for a minimum wage one to have enough time for this,” said Graham. “None of us is getting paid for what we do here. We’re trying to make it a one-stop shop. We can get the paperwork to the proper places, whether it’s Veterans Affairs, disabled veterans associations, medical or legal issue.
“Someone asked if we take all veterans, because so many organizations drop or deny vets for a variety of reasons. We don’t.”
Graham is firm on that.
In addition to working side-by-side with the Goodfellows, Downriver for Veterans enjoys a good rapport with the Wyandotte Fire Department.
“They presented us with a check,” Graham said. “They said they heard that we helped one of their veterans, so they wanted to help us. This has gotten so big, so quickly. Just one month in! Just think where we’ll be six months from now.”
Kroger supplied eight baskets of ingredients, rolls and food for holiday dinners.
The outpouring of love for the veterans has been so impressive, Graham and Co. are taking a night off, just to sit down and write out the horde of thank-you cards they feel are already overdue.
Everywhere they go, another door opens. Graham was at Macy’s, when the store’s Santa inquired why she was doing her Christmas shopping so late. She explained the organization, and he revealed himself as a retired Air Force veteran. Great Lakes Santas will now be counted among the fundraising troops this year.
“My boyfriend — and my goodness, I couldn’t do this without him — donated a warehouse to us until we get fully on our feet,” Graham said. “It’s wonderful to see the shelves filling up. When a veteran needs a pair of shoes, we’ll be able to say you don’t have to go downtown, here they are.”
Local veterans have found the outpouring equally heartening.
“I’ve just been a member for a couple of weeks,” veteran Daniel Jay said. “I said one thing about needing a place for my family to live soon and so many people have reached out to help. It’s just amazing how many out there are willing to help.”
Fueled by the notion that people need to eat all year, not just at Christmas, Downriver for Veterans is going to begin work on a food bank initiative, a place where veterans could get a meal every day.
On Jan. 16, at the Brass Monkey Bar, 1519 Oak St. in Wyandotte, the faces behind Downriver for Veterans will host the White Monkey Spaghetti Fundraiser; admission is $10. Graham said it isn’t so much a fundraiser, as a means of meeting everyone, explaining what Downriver for Veterans is doing and wish to do, and hopefully snagging some more volunteers.
Veterans in need of assistance, as well as people who would like to help others are invited to go to the Downriver for Veterans Facebook page.