PEORIA — Goodwill volunteers spent Saturday handing out food, clothes and supplies in preparation for winter at the 10th annual Stand Down for Homeless Veterans at Dozer Park.
“Veterans are special to us because of what they have done for us and our country, so we owe a debt of gratitude back to them,” said Don Johnson, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Illinois.
Roughly 187 veterans came from across the area, bused in from Springfield, Bloomington, Danville and other cities, to utilize the services provided by Goodwill.
“This is one event you want the numbers to go down,” said Johanna Wagner, senior program manager for veterans and employment services. This year, fewer veterans were served, but ultimately, the goal is for no one to need the resources brought to the Stand Down.
About 250 volunteers helped to provide hot meals, hot showers and haircuts in addition to the clothes and supplies the veterans may need going into winter.
Some of the goods were donated for the Veterans’ Service program, but Goodwill also purchased brand new coats, hats, gloves, sleeping bags, sweatshirts, boots and personal hygiene products.
“It starts off with retail and that donation is the basis of how we fund it, but we actually go out and specifically ask dollars from the community to help us,” Johnson said. “We’ve had a lot of support. This year for this event we raised well over $100,000.”
Medical and dental services also partner with Goodwill and checked veterans for health concerns at the Stand Down.
“When people donate and they buy from our stores, 99 cents of every dollar comes back into our programs so that we can offer these things for free,” Wagner said.
Depending on their needs, the veterans walked away with $200 to $400 worth of supplies, Johnson said.
“Some of the veterans that come through here, they don’t always have a need for everything that we’re giving today, but they have a need to interact with others that maybe have been through the same thing as they have been through,” Wagner said.
That camaraderie continues to bring the veterans together and helps them to support each other, Johnson said.
Leon Ruffus, an Army veteran who served in active duty in the 1980s, said he was skeptical of the program at first.
“They said, ‘We can help you,’ and I said ‘Oh yeah? Prove it.’”
They proved it five years ago by helping him renew his Permanent Employee Registration Card, which is required to work as a security guard in Illinois. So he stuck around.
“I always said when you down and somebody helps you, then you help the next person,” Ruffus said.
Now he helps to advocate for the program, telling other veterans how it can help them.
“A lot of these veterans, and that’s including myself, are very proud. We have a hard time accepting handouts,” he said. “But they’re not handing you nothing — you gotta work for it.”
Wagner says the Stand Down is like Christmas for her, but she works to help veterans year round, offering computer access, assistance with job certifications, mock interviews and workshops.
“If a veteran came in to me a month from now and said ‘I need a winter coat, hat and gloves,’ they’d get it. ‘I got a job, I need steel-toe boots,’ we get it. We take care of them because that’s what Goodwill does,” she said.
Once their clients have jobs, employment services at Goodwill Commons, 2319 E. War Memorial Drive, make sure they can overcome all the other barriers, like uniforms, licenses, equipment or even knives for a budding chef.
“There’s jobs out there, but we need to understand that there’s more than just showing up on Monday morning at 8 o'clock. There’s other things that are factored in,” Wagner said.
Kelsey Watznauer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kwatznauer.