When Debi Freeman first brought a KFC dinner to a grumpy old veteran she had befriended at the Ann Arbor VA, a cohort of wheelchairs converged in a tight circle around her. The old vet said they were not after her; they were drawn to the chicken. It was Christmas day more than 20 years ago.
Now Freeman, a child-care professional, is at the VA Nursing Home every Christmas Eve providing dinner and gifts to all of the residents there. She says she is grateful for the opportunity to say “thank you” to those who fought for her country.
And now she has help.
When coworkers in the college learned about their publicity-shy friend’s solo labor of love, they asked if they could help. Thus began Washtenaw Community College’s efforts to help our heroes have a merrier Christmas.
A phalanx of WCC office professionals began helping with fund raising for the event. Others from the college helped in different ways: gift-wrapping or visiting with the veterans on Christmas Eve.
Janet Hawkins, associate director of Public Affairs, was one of the early volunteers. She recalls a centenarian nursing home resident whom volunteers looked forward to seeing.
“As a long-lived veteran, he was a direct link to every U.S. military action in the 20th century, Hawkins said. “He understood what the fighting men in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf faced on the battlefield and at home when they returned. That kind of legacy carries with it a very special place in all of our hearts.”
Chihiro Rydberg, who works at the Children’s Center, has been a volunteer along with her family for the last two years. As a Japanese-American she found that some older vets were at first very uncomfortable with her. Her kindness disarmed them and the once warring nationalities shared mutual empathy.
Volunteers at the party help distribute food and gifts. More importantly, they spend time listening and talking with the veterans or perhaps playing games of Scrabble or cards. What these often-forgotten soldiers want most is the warmth of human caring.
Gifts are purchased for the nursing home residents with money collected at WCC or received from corporate sponsors. This year, a volunteer handmade 40 lap blankets for the residents.
A local party store provides balloons at cost, which are tied to the wheelchairs of the vets according to Toni Ellicott, secretary to the dean of Student Support Services. Other businesses provide either money or themed donations.
Contributions for the event have been collected at various sites around campus. Even though the official deadline for this year’s event has passed, donations are still welcome at the cashier’s office, Ellicott said.
These days the party goes beyond the first floor nursing home. Volunteers also visit veterans in the hospital wards distributing about 100 goodie bags. “A chance to show appreciation from WCC, local businesses and organizations,” is written on the bags.
Those who would like to help with this annual event, contact Beverly Leneski at (734) 845-3467 or just show up at the VA Medical Center, 2215 Fuller Road, and start spending time with vets. The Christmas Eve party starts at 5:30 p.m.; dinner is served at 6:30, though some volunteers stay for hours.
Of course, there’s no need to wait until the holidays to honor our vets. To learn of other ways to help, visit the Volunteer or Give page of the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.