When the news spread that the pantry shelves at Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, which serves veterans in need, were nearly empty and that food donations were greatly needed, the Johnston community answered the call to help in a major way.
“The amount of reach that that story had was huge. The outpouring of support to replenish the food pantry was incredible. To watch all sorts of different people from all different walks of life, professions, socio-economic status, they all showed up with food over the last several days,” said OSDRI’s Executive Director Erik Wallin. “Sometimes there are moments where you’re reminded how much veterans are appreciated and how much people want to recognize the sacrifices they’ve gone through. This is one of those moments.”
According to Wallin, donations by the trunkful started coming in shortly after the news story broke on July 24. The non-profit organization went from having nearly bare shelves to needing to find additional rooms to store all the donated foodstuffs. OSDRI’s pantry can serve hundreds of people, both veterans and their families, each week. The organization relies solely on donations to keep their shelves full.
“When you see a mom with her kids in the back of the car pull up and see that they have some food to donate and you’re watching that they have bags of groceries that they’re taking home to their family, but at the same time they bought $100 worth of groceries that they’re dropping off here, it’s breathtaking,” said Wallin.
Wallin said that the donations didn’t stop at dropoff donations. Residents went as far as to place orders for items such as peanut butter through Amazon and had the items shipped directly to OSDRI. He added that prominent individuals from major corporations have contacted the organization to meet and discuss how to keep the pantry shelves full year round, along with assistance to store some of the surplus items.
Perhaps the icing on the cake for the organization came last Thursday, when members of Johnston’s Police and Fire Departments, along with members of the town’s employees union, turned out in force with carloads of food donations and hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards for veterans to use.
“There are heroes here. Our veterans, we can’t do enough for them, whether it’s in Johnston or in another state,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena. “Once I saw the story in the Sun Rise, I immediately called all of the union representatives from the police, fire and municipal workers and they stepped up to the plate far better, I think, than any other community would. When I spoke with the presidents of the prospective unions, there wasn’t even any hesitation.”
Boxes for donations were then set up throughout town for donation dropoffs, which were then collected together for the massive dropoff. Members of AFL-CIO Local Union 1491, Johnston Firefighters Local 1950 and the International Brotherhood of Police Officer Local 307 were all on hand at Thursday’s dropoff and formed a human conveyor belt to carry food and supplies inside. It was an emotional scene for those who attended.
“This is all about them, it’s all about them wanting to help and make sure our veterans are taken care of,” said Polisena. “I’m sure that people that live on these premises will not tell you half of the things that they’ve been through. They’re heroes, there’s no doubt about it, and we really have to take care of them not only when they’re fighting for our country but when they’re back home.”
The mayor also presented Wallin with gift cards to Price Rite and booklets to local farmer’s markets for veterans to use.
“The police and fire department in this town, I can’t say enough about how well they treat our veterans. They’ve been up here in difficult situations, as a lot of our guys have mental health issues,” said Wallin to the crowd that gathered. “The care, the concern, the treatment and the respect that are given to our veterans during the difficult situations we know you’re in, I can’t say enough about it.”
Wallin added that there are older veterans that have consistent problems and struggles and that the town’s rescue and police services may be required four or five times for the same person over several weeks and the compassion they show is phenomenal.
“This is the best place we could have ever been, and it’s because of your support,” said Wallin.
Wallin added that the donations brought last Thursday alone would probably keep their pantry operational for an entire month.
OSDRI is an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and Rhode Island’s primary nonprofit resource for homeless and at-risk veterans. The non-profit was founded in 1993 and is headquartered at 1010 Hartford Avenue. Their mission is to help homeless and at-risk veterans secure stable housing.
The organization offers a wide range of life-changing services for veterans, including supportive permanent and transitional housing, intensive case management, basic human needs assistance in the form of food and clothing, and an employment training and placement program. Food pantry donations are still being accepted.
“Veterans answer the call to serve and, unfortunately, sometimes because of the experience they’ve had in war, whether that’s post-traumatic stress disorder or other physical disabilities, many times they face some real challenges,” said Wallin. “To see the community come forward to support them once they’re back home is tremendously inspiring.”