Homeless veterans treated to holiday dinners

More than 100 homeless veterans came together from a variety of shelters, for a dinner event that honored their service, and uplifted their spirits.

Veterans for Veterans America, Inc., a non-profit organization, recently hosted its "Pre-Christmas Dinner for Homeless Veterans" event at the Shelnutt Inter-Generational Center in Jonesboro.

"The intent of the event was to bring homeless veterans out of the shelters, temporary housing, and really spend a day with them to really get to know them," said Mike Sauls, CEO and co-founder of the organization.

Sauls said more than 40 individuals volunteered for the event, giving food to homeless veterans who might not be use to eating a decent meal from day to day. Operation Chefs Unite, a culinary program developed the American Culinary Federation Greater Atlanta Chapter, Inc., prepared the meals for the veterans, according to Sauls.

Dinner included turkey roast, green beans, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls, ham and desserts, he said.

Companies, including The Kroger Co., Atlanta Bread and Target, donated items, such as canned foods, cakes, desserts, sodas and cutlery, he added.

"The intent was to have these veterans feel special several days before Christmas," said Sauls.

He said veterans were allowed to come to a podium and share what they were thankful for, in their lives. He said local officials, including Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kimbrough, Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Ellenwood), and Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley, spoke to veterans at the event.

Bell said he supported the event and allowed Veterans for Veterans America to use the Shelnutt Inter-Generational Center. "We were able to show a strong sense of caring on behalf of Clayton County," said Bell. He said his son is a captain in the U.S. Navy, and he understands the sacrifices these veterans made for their country. "During this season, I want to be in the holiday spirit of giving, and I don't want nobody left out," he added.

Sheriff Kem Kimbrough said he served in the U.S. Air Force, from 1989, to 1993, and also understands the sacrifices of these homeless veterans. "Veterans are people we owe our gratitude to," said Kimbrough. The sheriff said his office donated about $100 for the event.

Kimbrough said he stressed to the veterans that home is where the heart is, which means they are not homeless. "We love them and thank them," he said later, during a telephone interview. "We still love them and care for them."

Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon said, although she holds a key city position, she felt she needed to be transparent and share her experience of being homeless at one point in her life. She said she was a homeless, single mother with four children, and tried to commit suicide at one point, long before she took public office. But she stressed to veterans that, if she overcame her situation, so could they.

"I decided I needed to show them that there is living [proof]," said the Riverdale mayor.

She said she believes the event lifted their spirits and made them feel special, as they chanted "Hoorah!" across the room. Wynn-Dixon added that during the event, veterans received gift cards. One veteran who received a $25 Walmart gift card, shared that it was the first gift he had received in years. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

"It was the look in their faces, a glimmer of hope and pride ... a sense of belonging without shame," said Wynn-Dixon.

Sauls said it took about three months to put the event together. He said Wells Fargo made a donation of $1,000 to the organization, and about $700 in donations came from individuals.