Berkshire Eagle : BRTA delivers tons of donated food, items for veterans at Soldier On

PITTSFIELD — Looking at several thousand pounds of locally donated food headed for regional Soldier On facilities on Wednesday, Jason Stump saw the future.

“That saffron tea will make excellent seasoning for chicken,” said Stump, head chef at the Pittsfield facility. “Cannellini beans are always a good addition to salads. Saltine crackers will be perfect for the crab cakes I make. I see all the ingredients for a good beef stew.”

Donated by Berkshires residents, the food had been collected — along with other items like clothing, toiletries, greeting cards, notebooks and much more — by Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and stored at BRTA’s headquarters on Downing Industrial Parkway.

Stump and roughly 10 veterans packed the food in boxes, loading the boxes into trucks, and driving the vehicles to the Soldier On apartment complex on West Housatonic Street. Within the next few days, some of it would be sent along to Soldier On’s Leeds facility to help veterans coming in off the streets.

“It’s keeping us busy on a nice day,” said Ben Hamilton, an Air Force veteran, as he packed boxes. “Last week, we went down to the Second Congregational Church and helped out making food at the food bank. We helped out the people of Pittsfield, gave back. This week, we’re being taken care of ourselves. And, believe me, a lot of people need some of this stuff.”

The drive was now in its fifth year as a benefit for Soldier On. Initially, it was organized to fund gifts to underprivileged children, but former BRTA Director Gary A. Shepard, now Soldier On’s president and CEO, converted the fundraiser to highlight another population in need.

In addition to the gift collection, BRTA donates two weeks’ worth of local bus revenue to the organization, which in 2015 amounted to 1,223 rides, or several thousand dollars.

“It’s a small price to pay,” said Tami Larimore, BRTA’s director of administration. “A lot of [veterans] come back broken. Some of us take for granted what we have every day — flushing toilets, hot showers, food in our cupboards, the blessings of a car to drive and a job to go to.”

She added, “A minority of us require medication to get through the day, not most of us. Few of us have serious physical ailments. This is a small way to say ‘thank you.’ We can’t make up for what you brought back with you, but we can show our appreciation.”

Shepard spoke about Soldier On’s national progress at BRTA — progress that has been helped along by numerous acts of charity like the one celebrated Wednesday.

He said 50,000 American veterans suffer homelessness in the United States — about 5,000 of them women — and another 1.4 million are living paycheck to paycheck and could lose housing anytime.

“We’re very proud of the partnership we have with BRTA,” Shepard said. “We recognize that one of the barriers for veterans getting supportive services and medical appointments they need, for employment, for education — for getting generally reintegrated into the community — is transportation. It’s a major barrier. A lot of our veterans do not have cars, and they need to get around. Working with BRTA is a real value-added component.”

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.