With winter hitting the Central Valley after having some lingering summer type weather in the fall, the rain and cold has settled in. Not everyone will go to sleep in a warm bed or even with a roof over their head but there are organizations out there that are looking out for the less fortunate, like American Veterans First (AVF). They are a non-profit organization that assists veterans throughout the community as well as the general public that may not have homes.
For the second year in a row they are hosting a Blanket and Coat Drive where they are collecting blankets, sleeping bags, socks, coats, and gloves for those in need. Over the past few years AVF CEO Duke Cooper expressed that they have donated approximately 1000 coats, about 800 blankets, hundreds of sleeping bags, and a combined total of 1500 pairs of socks and gloves.
“They don’t have to be leather gloves or anything heavy, just those white cotton gloves, something to take the bite and sting off,” he said. “We are in the process of that and people are starting to come out of the woodwork with us. We pick up coats and stuff every day. There is a huge demand.”
This past weekend The River Christian Community Church in Oakdale donated large bags filled with goods from their Saturday drive to support the efforts of AVF. Cooper had the entire back of his pick-up truck full of donations from the church.
They will be collecting gently used and new coats and blankets in all sizes and colors for men and women through the winter months.
Since the rain began to fall Cooper went out in the community a few weeks ago and passed out 6x8 tarps for those that are out on the streets. They are always looking to assist veterans but anyone that they encounter in need they will try to help.
“They need the simple things,” added Cooper. “When you are living under a sheet of cardboard that tarp is probably a welcome relief. We always look for veterans first but if I see someone who needs a coat I am going to give them a coat. I don’t care who you are. Or I will give you a blanket and not ask any questions. We are a community organization serving our veterans and other folks.”
Newly recruited to the AVF organization is his daughter Misty Cooper. She will be assisting with fundraisers and event planning which she has already started. They started a fundraiser for feminine hygiene packs last month that have been delivered to those in need in throughout the area. They have raised over $500 so that they can fill the packs with necessities like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, a bar of soap, a hand cloth, floss, lip gloss, small bottle of lotion, and tampons.
“She came up with the idea of the feminine hygiene packs and I am amazed at the demand that there is,” said Cooper. “So far she has gone crazy buying products. We go out together and she is talking with the young ladies and distributing the products and the reaction from the women is unbelievable. They are nice packs with lots of stuff and about three month’ worth of products in there.”
This past November the local organization lost a dear friend who was known as Scooter John. He was in his 80s and was a Korean era veteran that was homeless. A few years back he had stopped by AVF because his scooter ran out of batteries so they gave him new batteries. He would visit the facilities in Riverbank two to three times a week.
“He was really ornery but he was a fierce debater,” expressed Cooper. “We would sit there for two to three hours debating each other and then he would say ‘well I got to go.’ They found him down on Oakdale Road in Modesto. He traveled from Riverbank to Modesto on his scooter.”
Cooper explained that Scooter John did not have any blood family left and they thought they were his only family until there was a memorial for him at the United Methodist Church and several people turned out to pay their respects. AVF escorted his body from the Samaritan Village in Hughson where he passed to the funeral director’s vehicle.
“What is amazing is that there were other veterans in there and one was a Navy veteran, his wife was in the room next door dying of cancer,” said Cooper. “He took time out away from his wife to come out and respect that veteran, saluted him and escorted him all the way to the funeral car and then helped me fold the flag.”
This past weekend Cooper was asked to speak at Hills Ferry Cemetery in Newman and at the San Joaquin National Cemetery in Santa Nella for a National Wreath Ceremony. The National Wreaths Across America Day is held in December to remember the sacrifices veterans have made in wars since the American Revolution. The day is observed in mid-December on a Saturday and this year it was held on Dec. 14.
When you see the flags outside the American Veterans First building on Patterson Road in Riverbank, they are open for business; otherwise, volunteers at AVF will be on the streets helping those in need. They are always looking for volunteers so for those that are interested call 209-863-8480 or email Americanveteransfirst16@gmail.com.