Pandemic no match for Stand Down Weekend as it moves to Johnston

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Operation Stand Down Rhode Island isn’t letting the coronavirus pandemic put too much of a damper on its 29th annual Stand Down Weekend, holding a scaled-down version at Johnston War Memorial Park this Friday and Saturday.

OSDRI, which is based on Hartford Avenue and helps veterans find housing and employment, already had to hold its Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial virtually this past Memorial Day. Executive Director Erik Wallen said, though, that Stand Down Weekend is too valuable a resource to cancel.

He said adapting Stand Down Weekend in the face of COVID-19 limitations is a “challenge,” but local veterans rely on the employment and legal services OSDRI provides at the event.

“Everybody I’ve talked to within the veteran community are really very happy that we’re doing it. There was a sense that everything this year was getting canceled,” Wallin said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “You just can’t provide these kinds of services virtually. This is a face-to-face, in-person kind of delivery and ‘stand down,’ while it has its own meaning in the military world, we were not going to stand down because of COVID.”

Wallin said he has seen Stand Down Weekend grow exponentially in his 10 years at OSDRI, expanding into a military tent-style city at Diamond Hill Park in Cumberland that welcomes between 500 and 600 veterans per year.

That figure is impossible with the pandemic, and the logistics of setting up at Diamond Hill would be prohibitive. Instead, Stand Down Weekend will take place just down the street from OSDRI headquarters at Johnston War Memorial Park.

“[It] seemed like a fitting location, both given the fact that it is a war memorial park, it’s in our hometown and we’re going to use the location to essentially stage the dropping off of veterans, as well as the arrival of veterans by their own vehicles,” Wallin said. “Mayor [Joseph] Polisena was really very gracious of offering the park when we approached him.”

Wallin said OSDRI has a strong relationship with Johnston, saying the town has been “so good to us.”

“I can’t say enough about the police department, EMS, as well as the mayor’s office. Whenever we’ve needed assistance, help or support, they’ve been there,” Wallin said. “They’re there for our veterans who live on campus as well, and there’s just a lot of support within the Johnston community for veterans. It’s a great town here in Rhode Island.”

The Veterans Association Medical Center will be on hand again this year to provide health services, while OSDRI and volunteer attorneys will be at veterans’ disposal to assuage concerns over disability or social security claims and landlord/tenant and consumer matters.

Wallin added that OSDRI’s employment and training squad, as well as its housing assistance team, will be on sight to help veterans find jobs and aid those who are homeless. All veterans will be fed boxed lunches through a partnership with Fast Track, a nonprofit started by Nicholas Cardi III, and Chelo’s.

“We of course have been very close with the Cardis really for longer than I’ve bene here and it’s been over 10 years,” Wallin said. “This is a continuation, Cardi’s Furniture and Mattress has given us a lot of great publicity for the event and it’s really amazing to have another Cardi generation involved and raising money to provide us meals. We’ll be giving boxed lunches to the veterans that are here during lunchtime. These are being made up by Chelo’s and being funded through Nick Cardi III’s nonprofit.”

Safety of veterans, volunteers and staff members is the primary concern for OSDRI, and once that was ensured Wallin knew Stand Down Weekend must continue in order to help those who depend on the event year after year.

“We know the importance of this event, especially given the additional burdens that have been placed on our veterans who were already in a vulnerable situation to begin with,” Wallin said. “So, despite those challenges, we felt that it was even more necessary to figure out a way to deliver some of the most basic services that occur at Stand Down Weekend to those who need it the most.”

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