Columnist John Paradis: ‘Woodstock moment’ for veterans

Published: 2/9/2017 9:28:59 PM

Johanna Montalvo was on the other side of recovery, battling a drug addiction and fighting to get her life back in order to include finding a place to live.

Then the Army veteran, 44, from Holyoke met Dave Felty, the Navy veteran, 45, from Southampton.

Dave, a member of the Statewide Advocacy for Veterans’ Empowerment, better known as “SAVE,” helped Johanna find a place to live with a housing choice voucher through the federal Section 8 program. But, after living on the street, she had no furniture or other items to make the apartment a home.

That’s where Dave put on his other hat on in helping a fellow vet. Through the nonprofit called Homeward Vets that he started with his spouse, Lisa, he got Johanna a new bed, a dresser, a computer desk, a coffee table, and a nice sofa to match. Then came lamps, a book shelf, and kitchen pots and pans and even cleaning supplies.

Housed in a warehouse in Ludlow Mills, Homeward Vets provides free furniture and household items to veterans transitioning out of homelessness.

And here is where Homeward Vets and SAVE’s mission to prevent veteran suicide and mental health distress intersect.

By that simple act of kindness in helping a vet with some of the basic items that the rest of us take for granted, veterans like Montalvo get something back that’s even more important: hope and a reason to live.

The day she moved into her apartment was also the day she volunteered to pay it forward by unloading and loading furniture for another veteran and his spouse. Seeing the spouse’s reaction when they got their furniture, Montalvo recalls, was “priceless” and it made her think. She started the day with nothing and now she had everything and by everything, not just the material side of life, but her dignity and her identity, too.

“Homeward Vets gave me the opportunity to volunteer – to give back to those who have been there for me,” says Montalvo, who now is a peer-to-peer coach at the Hope for Holyoke Recovery Support Center. “I now have a purpose in life – to help those in need.”

Homeward Vets was launched in 2012. The idea came from Dave and Lisa, who through her work as the director of Leased Housing and VA Supportive Housing programs with the Northampton Housing Authority, would help countless homeless veterans find apartments. They both realized that life is more than just having a roof over your head, as important as that is.

Most people don’t think of homelessness as anything beyond a person needing a place to live. But if you are sleeping on the floor or you don’t have a place to sit down and have a meal, things can fall apart quickly, says Steve Connor, the director of Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services and a member of the Homeward Vets’ board of directors.

“Before you know it, people are back on the street again,” says Connor. “And then it can quickly spiral out of control from there.”

Homeward Vets began collecting donations and distributing them from Dave and Lisa’s garage in Southampton. Then within a few years, they quickly outgrew Dave’s garage so they were able to find the warehouse in Ludlow. With one truck – donated by Springfield heating and air conditioning company Hurley & David Inc. – the organization is able to make about two or three deliveries a week.

Calls are coming in all the time for help from all over New England and the Northeast but with no paid staff, a shoestring budget and some volunteers, there’s no way the organization is going to grow without more help.

To do it right, it needs someone to arrange the pickups, organize the warehouse, service clients, sort through goods, do minor repairs if needed, answer phones, help with fundraising, create a data base of volunteers and the tasks they like to do, and on and on. Steve’s vision is for Homeward Vets hiring a volunteer coordinator.

“This can be a more than a full-time endeavor and if we can just get the help and just create more structure then we can get more furniture and get more space,” says Steve. “The need is definitely there. And we can help more people than even beyond our veterans. There are people everywhere that need this help. That’s our goal to expand this idea to help everyone. But right now, we can’t.”

The organization has had one fundraiser a year – a 5K fun run in Florence that’s held on the weekend before Memorial Day. It’s a small event that brings in a bit of money and gets some nice support from local businesses, but much more is needed.

Then the thought came to take what has been a small-scale concert held in Northampton at the World War II Club on Conz Street with a few bands and musicians and blow it out with a one-day, all-night music festival.

So on March 4, musical talent from all over the Pioneer Valley will play at two Northampton venues to raise money for the organization. Called simply enough, “The Winter Music Fest,” nonstop music will start at noon at the World War II Club – “The Deuce” on Conz Street – and continue at Platform Sports Bar at Union Station off Pleasant Street in Northampton later in the day and through the night.

A lot of veterans are involved in organizing this feel-good event, including the owner of Platform, Jeremiah Micka, an Army veteran of the Iraq war, and Larry Green, an Air Force vet and music lover who has become the band leader of sorts and promoter extraordinaire.

People need something to cheer for, says Green. And the music fest is coming at the right time as more and more attention is placed on how to best support veterans who are homeless and how to stop the epidemic of veteran suicides.

“What’s exciting is that we are bringing in a lot of bands and energy from all over the community to do this to help veterans,” says Green. “We want this to be the premier music festival in all of western Mass. Think of it as our Woodstock moment.”

For more information on tickets and times for the Winter Music Fest, visit homewardvets.wordpress.com.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He is a veterans’ outreach coordinator for VA New England Health Care System.

 




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