DECATUR – James Somers lived in a tent for a while.
Then he moved to The Salvation Army shelter.
A retired roofer, Somers said he can't do that kind of work anymore, but as a Marine veteran who served from 1982 to 1989, he discovered he could get a hand up from Help 4 Heroes.
The organization began on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2016 with the Cruise 11 for 9/11 event held annually in Central Park in downtown Decatur. Organizer Ayn Owens, who has a soft spot for veterans in particular, said that the event raised $25,000 this year, with help from Brian Byers' show on WSOY, and then the Howard G. Buffet Foundation provided another $125,000, allowing Help 4 Heroes to do much more.
“In a little over a year, we've helped 400 veterans,” Owens said. “Last year we did Christmas blankets for all the veterans.”
Owens didn't want to say what the veterans are getting this year, so as not to spoil the surprise, but she's pleased with it.
Pizza and goodies lined the tables in the Macon County Veterans Assistance Commission office as veterans who have benefited from Help 4 Heroes gathered for a pre-Christmas celebration.
“Yesterday, I went grocery shopping with a friend for the widow of a veteran,” Owens said. “We bought several pot pies, TV dinners, things that are easy for her to prepare. We have to take care of the widows, too.”
Help 4 Heroes provides monthly bus passes, gift cards for gas and groceries, rent and power bill assistance. The organization paid for 5,000 bus rides in the last year.
“We never want the veterans to get behind in their power bills before winter even starts,” Owens said.
Funding for the Veterans Assistance Commission ran out in September, Owens said, and until the new funding came in this month, Help 4 Heroes was able to fill the gaps.
But many of the things the organization does are specific to it.
Army veteran Anthony Taylor, who served in 1976-77, has volunteered in the Veterans Assistance Commission office for the last six months. He handles many of the day-to-day details of applications, scheduling the van that provides rides for veterans, and hands out the gift cards.
“They helped me and I don't mind helping people. I enjoy doing it and I just love it,” Taylor said. “I love helping the next person, the next veteran, and I'm glad to be here and able to serve them like that. It's just a blessing that they can come to this office and when they leave, they have a smile on their face.”
Somers has only been in his apartment a few weeks, but the difference it has made in his life is enormous, he said. Thanks to Help 4 Heroes, and Owens' Facebook posts which resulted in furnishings and household items he lacked, he's very comfortable and happy there, he said.
“They've helped me out with everything,” Somers said “I needed everything and they just set me up.”
The Salvation Army told him about Help 4 Heroes and that's how he met Owens. He said he'd tell any other veteran in need to go straight to Help 4 Heroes.
“It's great,” Somers said. “I don't even know how to explain it.” He plans to look for part-time work and hopes to make a trip to Texas to see his daughter who lives there.
When Ron Jones' air conditioner stopped working in the midst of the hottest part of summer, he turned to Help 4 Heroes. The Vietnam veteran, who served in the Army from 1969-75, said without the organization, he'd have been in trouble. He couldn't afford to buy a new unit by himself.
He's received help ranging from a coat and boots to assistance with his power bills.
“I mentioned (the need) to Help 4 Heroes,” Jones said. “They brought me a brand-new air conditioner and they delivered it. I appreciated it very much. And not only that. I've got lung cancer and I was having a problem getting back and forth to the cancer center, and they provided me transportation.”