For veteran JJ Cole, the personal touch means quite a lot, especially when meeting someone at the West Metro Veterans Fair who can help him resolve the complications he has run into with receiving food stamps.
“It probably helped us get to where we are today – just meeting certain people and the officials who say, ‘Come into my office,’ or ‘Here’s my card,’” Cole said about what the fair means to him. He has attended it two years in row.
The West Metro Veterans Fair is an annual collaboration involving several City of Lakewood departments, the Elks Club Lodge 1777, the American Legion, several federal and county agencies as well as veterans themselves. This broad-based committee works to bring together a wide array of organizations, agencies and service groups that provide help and resources to make it easier for veterans and their families to get what they need. The fair, which occurs in the fall, has included some 48 vendors such as the Veterans Benefit Administration, mental health services, housing coalitions, service animals, universities and colleges, health care providers and recreational programs helping veterans with physical and mental healing.
“What’s nice about (the fair) is getting everything together in one location, so it’s kind of like a one-stop shop for veterans,” said Vietnam veteran Tom Simpson (read more about his background). “Not only can veterans find assistance but also for veterans to find opportunities to help other veterans. That’s the thing I really enjoy about this event.”
Neil Stanley (read more about his background), a medical foreman in the Vietnam War, agreed, noting it’s the largest such event he has attended. He began going to the committee meetings to help plan the fair because he wanted to support his fellow soldiers.
“It’s wonderful to help other vets learn about the benefits they have. A lot of veterans don’t know about them,” he said. “And here are all of these very nice people saying, ‘Well, you can do this, you can do that,’ and it’s a really wonderful thing.”
Cole, who was a special forces veteran, looked to the fair not only for help with his food stamps but also to find a place to live since he has been homeless for several months.
Getting the practical help that they need is paramount for the more than 100 veterans who attend the fair because they receive everyday supplies that tide them over while they work to get back on their feet. But it’s the personal connections with other veterans at the fair that may be the most meaningful part of it. They can swap stories, feel a sense of kinship and just talk with someone who knows firsthand what they have experienced.
“I’m not here for me to get help, but just to see what’s available to get the information along to other veterans,” said Stanley, who did take the time to get a free flu shot for himself.
Now in its fourth year, the fair began when Lakewood’s Chief Probation Officer Scott Hefty witnessed veterans in Lakewood Municipal Court cases who needed assistance yet were unaware of the services and support available to them. A veteran himself, he recognized the need to pay vets back for their commitment and their service, so he approached his supervisor with the idea of hosting a fair to put all the services available to veterans in one place. The idea quickly blossomed into a communitywide effort, and it’s an example of the kind of collaborations that has twice earned Lakewood the All-America City title, a prestigious national award that recognizes cities for problem-solving strategies that link the private, public and nonprofit sectors together to address needs in the community.
The fair has relied on the Lakewood’s Elks Club Lodge 1777 to provide the site for the past two years. Donated burgers and other food provide a welcome way for veterans to connect with each other, while some 25 volunteers help run the event.
“The first year, there were many vets sitting and eating by themselves, and as the event has grown, the volunteers now go and sit and chat with vets. Now the vets even chat amongst themselves,” said Diane Peet, a City employee who volunteers at the fair. “It’s just been really, really wonderful.”