Volunteers Come Together to Help Manahawkin Elks Deliver Backpacks for Homeless Veterans
As James Lynch and Kelly Arneth shuffled from table to table inside Manahawkin Elks Lodge 2340, stuffing the backpacks with soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, warm clothes and other items, they understood quite well that what they held in their hands was a necessity for at least two individuals.
“It’s important that everybody has everyday essentials,” said Lynch, a 17-year-old Barnegat High School junior who’s part of the school’s ROTC program. “When you’re homeless, a lot of times you’re on the move from one place to another. So everything somebody needs, at least for some time, is right here in this bag.”
Arneth glanced over the 50 backpacks, and then looked around the room at those who were responsible for them.
“I’m here to help somebody in need, even in a small way,” said Arneth, a 16-year-old junior from Southern Regional and also part of the high school’s ROTC program. “It’s the right thing to do, so you make time to do it. But I’m not alone, either. It’s great to see so many people get together to do something for the greater good.”
Lynch and Arneth were just two among several dozen community members gathered for a bit more than an hour on Jan. 12, packing up simple day-packs that were slated for delivery to local nonprofit Vetwork, which dedicates itself to assisting honorably discharged veterans coming home, getting situated, receiving financial, social and medical aid, and readjusting to domestic life in the U.S.
In addition to Southern/Barnegat ROTC program director Bill Spence and his crew of some 15 teens, some others who took some time on a Thursday to offer a helping hand in packing the bags included Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora and council members Alan Smith, Sharon McKenna and Paul Marchal, Stafford Township Recreation Director Betti Anne McVey and AtlantiCare Regional Administrator Cynthia Meli. With at least two dozen on hand, packing 50 bags took less than 30 minutes.
“We became aware of what the Elks were doing and some of us wanted to be a part of it,” Marchal said. “We believe in the initiatives that are set up to take care of our veterans.”
Overseen by Jack Milne and supported by the 710-member Elks lodge, the backpack project is designed to provide essentials to homeless veterans in Ocean County and has been going on for five years.
“Vetwork served more than 200 homeless veterans last year,” said Elks member and Vetwork office manager Mary Anne DiLeo. “We will take these bags and distribute them to homeless veterans as we come across them. A lot of them have nothing, and nothing to carry anything around with them. These aren’t big bags, but they’re filled with essentials that most homeless individuals need. So these bags work for their situations very well.”
Once the packing mission was done, many of the participants mingled and enjoyed a light lunch provided by the Elks.
“It’s a great event and a great opportunity for students and the community-at-large to be involved in,” Smith said. “It’s important to take care of those who gave so much to our nation. They need our support and we’re here to give it to them.”
Spence said he often has described to students an experience he had at 16 years old, when he frequently was witness to a homeless man near the building where he worked. He found out after the man had died that he was a veteran who was a Medal of Honor recipient. Spence reminds students that, for some, readjusting to civilian life is very hard on veterans.
“Our students need to understand that many veterans go through a major readjustment period when they return to civilian life,” Spence said. “Unfortunately, some of them don’t do well with it and end up homeless, for varying reasons. And getting them here to be a part of something like this is a good way to remind our students of that.”
— David Biggy