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Veterans find camaraderie at monthly Reading event that helps fill needs

Reading Eagle - 7/9/2022

Jul. 9—The lunch being served to veterans at City Park in Reading on Saturday was appreciated.

And the trailer full of clothing and the table filled with various grocery items were helpful and, in many cases, much needed.

But getting free stuff isn't why James Fleming comes to the monthly Stand Down.

"It's nice that we get food and clothing but there's a lot more to this," he said. "The camaraderie is the reason I come here. You get to talk to other veterans about things that regular civilians just wouldn't understand."

Fleming sees his fellow veterans as family, sees those who served as he did as brothers and sisters. And, he said, he is overjoyed that someone is making sure that family is taken care of.

That's the whole idea behind Stand Down, which is hosted by an army of volunteers from various groups like the Veterans Coalition of Pennsylvania every second Saturday of the month.

Sean Perry, a board member of the Veterans Coalition of Pennsylvania, joined the Reading organization a decade ago after coming across a flyer for the monthly event and was drawn to its mission. He said that as a veteran of Operation Desert Storm he feels a special connection to those that the event serves.

"These are my brothers and sisters," he said. "We did something together that no one can take away from us."

Perry said Stand Down started with a small group of volunteers who took turns making meals and has grown over time to include many different organizations that are willing to lend a hand.

"There are gaps in the system that we can help fill," he said. "Many of our clients here are Vietnam War veterans who came home and did everything they were supposed to but find that Social Security is simply not enough to make ends meet."

The event provides veterans with food, clothes, blankets and a meal hosted by a different organization each month.

This month the Biker Church in Boyertown was the group providing the free lunch. Its pastor Richard Grill said church has provided the meals each July for the last several years.

"We love doing this for our veterans because there were times in our history when they were treated badly, especially those who served in the Vietnam War," he said. "They deserve our appreciation and they deserve to know that people care about them."

Grill said he believes he gets just as much out of the event as those who they serve.

"I gain a lot from talking to the veterans and hearing their stories," he said. "They need to share their stories so that they can have healing for themselves, because if they can't share that frustration builds. So if I can provide that for them than that makes me feel like I can be of service."

In addition to the food and clothes, the Berks County Department of Veterans Affairs has a stand and representative on site to provide the veterans with information about the different benefits available to them.

Fleming, who spent four years in the Army, said that's one of the most important features of the event. He said that there is a common misconception that veterans leave the armed forces understanding the resources and benefits available to them.

But, he said, that simply is not the case.

"Many of the things you have to find out by word of mouth," the Reading resident said. "I didn't know about a lot of benefits until I came here and started learning from other veterans about what kind of things are out there."

Richard Atkins, an Air Force veteran living who regularly attends the event, said he's grateful that there are organizations who truly care about those who served in the military.

"This fills a very important need," he said. "A lot of veterans have been homeless at some point or close to it. Events like this one provide camaraderie as far as meeting new people and being able to touch base with some veteran services."

Charles Stern, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Reading, comes to the event each month.

"I come here to meet other veterans who are going through the same things as I am," he said. "I think it's nice that all these people come together to provide this space for us. I feel like they respect me for my service and I respect them for being here."

Kristy Birmingham is at the event nearly every month as well. The Gilbertsville resident is a member of the Veterans Coalition and helps to manage the donations the group receives from the community.

She said the cause is near and dear to her heart since her father and uncle were both members of the military.

"I get the satisfaction of helping veterans," she said. "I see my father and uncle in many of these veterans so I know how much it would mean to me if someone would be willing to help them if they were in a similar situation so I do what I can."


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