Veterans First has been helping veterans throughout the community since their inception in August. Having a stress free environment or a safe haven for veterans is very important to Duke Cooper, himself a Marine veteran, and Coordinator of the Veterans First organization. This venture has catapulted them into some new ventures as well like the creation of a mobile museum, a coat and blanket drive, and Toys for Tots giveaway.
They have already outgrown their space and have had to push a wall back to make room for their projects and people. They also removed the pool table to make more room at the site along Patterson Road in Riverbank.
Bill Johnson with the Marine Corps Reserve and member of Toys for Tots organized the giveaway last week along with assistance from Cooper and other volunteers. With a Christmas tree decorated by volunteer Crystal Deague, it definitely set the mood for the families that stopped by the facility to pick up their toys. There were toys that filled the bottom of the tree which kids were allowed to select one to take after grabbing a candy cane off the tree. Each family has to preregister and check in before collecting their toys.
There were 65 bags of toys given and 10 bicycles distributed to families in Oakdale and Riverbank.
Several people came through very thankful and appreciative for the toys. There was one lady that arrived with a heart filled with warmth as she collected her bag and gave each person in the room a hug. Another lady arrived with her children that lost their father this year and though she was usually the one giving during this time of the year, this time needed help herself.
“Most of them are really happy,” said Johnson. “The kids are smiling ear to ear and parents are saying God bless you guys.”
Veterans First also hosted a coat and blanket drive this past Saturday where they collected approximately 100 coats and about 75 blankets. Kevin Fox with I Heart Radio broadcast live from the facility and they had several people stop by to donate. Previously they took several coats and blankets and distributed them in Modesto along with the help from Deague and her father, Butch. One kind and giving gentleman brought in five brand new coats to help the cause.
“A couple weeks ago we got the idea that winter is coming on so it was time to warm some people up,” stated Cooper. “So we initially were going to look for homeless veterans but you know it came down to the point where we decided it is for worthy people.
“I hate to use the word homeless because it kind of gives you the thought that all their hope is gone and it is not. So it is worthy folks.”
They will continue to collect new or gently used coats and blankets throughout the winter to help those in need.
“There are a lot of people out there that really are worthy to have a warm coat and a warm blanket especially if they don’t have a place to sleep at night,” expressed Cooper. “Our goal is to not have anybody without a coat this winter that needs one.”
Currently they are in the process of building a mobile museum that has veteran-themed memorabilia to take to schools and other places to share with the public. Cooper is asking the community to donate or loan any veteran memorabilia to add to the traveling display.
On Saturday, Dec. 17 they will conduct another coat and blanket drive at the VSO (Veterans Service Office), 121 Downey Ave. # 102, Modesto from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m.
“Get into the spirit, it is Merry Christmas and it is not about the gifts,” added Cooper. “It is about helping people. We keep the Christ in Christmas around here and that is important. It is not about you; it is about someone else.”