More than a lunch line: Needy vets serve food, help themselves

Source: http://www.dailypress.com/dp-nws-hampton-va-portsmouth-20180209-story.html

A few weeks ago, Tyson Young came to the Peninsula Rescue Mission in Newport News. Homeless and addicted to drugs.

The 33-year-old Marine veteran could no longer draw strength from the brotherhood of the Corps, and he needed help.

On Monday, Young stood on the right side of the lunch line. With a smile on his face, he arranged trays of food for the needy and homeless at Oasis Social Ministry in Portsmouth.

Next to Young stood 36-year-old Jacob Bell, an Army veteran. He handed out canned soda and other drinks once the food was served. Bell has battled post-traumatic stress disorder for years. Plus homelessness. Plus various addictions. You’d never know it to look at him.

At the end of the line, Araceli Vest lorded over a tray of cupcakes and other goodies. At one time, this would have been unthinkable for her. Suffering from PTSD and fearful of crowds, she once spent two years inside her house, unable to leave.

Clearly, this was no ordinary serving line.

Young, Bell, Vest and two other veterans — more on them later — deployed Monday from the Hampton VA Medical Center to serve food at the Oasis site on Williamsburg Avenue in Portsmouth. Dozens of needy city residents braved a rainy, windswept day for barbecued chicken, red beans and rice, and a garden salad.

The meal — as kitchen supervisor Dwayne Burrell proudly pointed out — was not stereotypical soup kitchen fare. He holds it up against any restaurant meal.

“We do breakfast and lunch pretty much every day,” he said.

The food does more than fill hungry stomachs.

The Hampton VA patients understand how someone’s life can spiral downward. They have battled homelessness, drug addiction and mental health problems themselves. Often, they will step out from behind the counter and chat with folks about their problems.

If they end up talking to other veterans, they’ll often recommend the Hampton VA.

Kay Kerr is the Hampton VA recreation therapist who initiated the program six years ago. Recreation therapy is a clinical service and is considered an important part of treatment.

She’s seen results with the trips to Oasis.

“Our veterans feel comfortable talking to them because they’ve been there,” Kerr said. “They say, ‘hey, you need to go get some help.’ ”

That help works both ways. The Hampton VA veterans enjoy giving help instead of asking for it.

“I like to see the smiles on their faces,” Bell said. “It brings joy to my spirit. I need that.”

‘On the giving end’

Vest has been to Oasis before. The Navy veteran served on the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer. She suffers from PTSD, which she attributes to an accumulation of childhood and military experiences. After leaving the military, her life hit rock bottom when she stopped taking care of herself and her children.

“I was isolating,” she said. “I stayed in my house for two years. It was pretty bad.”

With trips to Oasis, she is slowly but surely feeling comfortable around large groups. She is no longer afraid, and people have commented at how much better she looks. She’s been at the Hampton VA since early December.

“I am improving,” she said.

Saul Munn came to the Hampton VA’s domiciliary for homeless vets in November. An Army special forces veteran who served from 1971 to 1987, he suffered from depression, PTSD and homelessness.

These problems accumulated over time. It took him 30 years to come forward and seek help.

“I had quite a few issues,” he said. “It was taking a toll on everyday living.”

Now that he’s taking classes and talking to other veterans in the same boat, he says his life has changed. A trip to Oasis to help others is another step forward.

“I can relate myself to this,” he said. “It gives me the opportunity to show love and compassion … Now I’m on the giving end and I enjoy giving it.”

Monday marked the first trip to Oasis for Andrew Holmes, a Navy veteran who served on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Ranger and fought in the Persian Gulf War. That’s where his PTSD started. Unable to cope with anger, depression and isolation, he ended up at the Hampton VA.

“My family was seeing what was going on with me,” he said. “I really kept it to myself. I was just tearing up family, my friends. People didn’t want to be around me. So I decided I needed to change.”

Asking for help can be the hardest part, the veterans say.

Young, the Marine Corps veteran, left the military with the rank of sergeant and experience as a helicopter mechanic. His drug use started after going through combat. It continued into civilian life as a way to relieve the stress of family debts and other problems. He ended up being referred to the VA through a friend, but it wasn’t easy.

He wanted to tough it out, but couldn’t. But after missing the brotherhood of the Marine Corps, he says he’s rediscovered a brotherhood at the VA.

“It’s been just over a month and I feel normal,” he said.

‘Major blessing’

Oasis is a not-for-profit charitable corporation serving the communities of Portsmouth, western Chesapeake and northern Suffolk. It operates a food pantry and thrift store. Burrell commands the kitchen and describes Oasis as a “one-stop shop” for the needy.

“It’s for those looking for a good meal or someone who needs something to carry them through the week,” he said. “Maybe they need money to put toward their bills. It’s not just for the homeless.”

Last year, Oasis served 48,641 meals, which averages out to about 133 a day, seven days a week.

Oasis depends on volunteers to carry out its mission, so the regular visits by the Hampton VA team fills a gap.

“It’s a major blessing,” Burrell said. “They come in with enthusiasm. They’re excited. They enjoy what they do. Being that they served in the military, like myself, it’s just an honor (for them) to come back and serve again.”

The Hampton VA veterans travel to Oasis three times a month to serve lunch and strike up conversations at the table. The volunteer duty looks good on a resume, Kerr pointed out. Volunteer work can turn into paid work once the veterans leave the Hampton VA and restart their lives in the outside world.

Kerr chose Oasis six years ago because it had the right kind of setup for what she wanted to do. She believes the model would work elsewhere.

“The nation,” she said, “needs more of these kinds of programs.”

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821

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