The Cumberland County Elks Lodge #2751 Veterans Services Committee is in the moving business, loading up trucks with furniture and other items and driving them to various locations in and around Cumberland County.
Unlike the majority of moving businesses, this one is on the “house.”
Over the past year, an average of four to six committee members delivered donated furniture to 16 displaced veterans. The items included beds up to queen size, sofas, loveseats, chairs, tables, small appliances and wall decorations.
The veterans have been identified through HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) and live in subsidized housing. When they move in, the homes are vacant. Thanks to the Veterans Committee and the generosity of various individuals and groups, more than a dozen didn’t remain that way for long.
The move to help displaced vets started with a committee member who’s a realtor, and a listing in Fairfield Glade.
When the out-of-state sellers told Kathy Brennan she could take whatever furniture she wanted from the home, the Crossville resident suddenly had the solution to how the VSC could help veterans in a truly meaningful way.
“We were trying to figure out more ways to help veterans,” Brennan said. “We wanted to go beyond dinners and plaques. You can’t eat a plaque.”
When a friend and fellow realtor passed away, her family asked Brennan to take the belongings out of her apartment. She now had two households of furniture and, through a subsequent call to the Veterans Administration and working with various nonprofit agencies, helped establish a program that delivers far more than plaques.
“It was Kathy’s brainchild,” said committee chairman Joe Girten. “That started the process and it went from there. Another member, Debbie Ormsby (née Tanacea) and her husband Tom latched onto it like bulldogs. She put the word out and started accepting donations. We started with one storage locker and then added a second, and even borrowed part of a third from a friend of Kathy’s to hold everything we’d gotten.”
Brennan comes from a military family and served as a volunteer aide at Great Lakes Naval Hospital during the Vietnam War.
“Veterans and children are my passion,” Brennan said. “No one should have to sleep in a tent. I’m excited about this program. We’re not just providing basics. It’s like a new home.”
Girten said most of the furniture they get is in good shape.
“We tell people if it’s something you would give your family, we’ll take it,” Girten said. “We’re not a junk removal company.”
If they get something of value that needs a slight upgrade, they’ll enlist the services of Angie Lamie, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant and chalk artist with a knack for restoring things to their former luster.
“We also have members who have refurbishing and repair experience who will take a piece and make it like new again,” Girten said.
The committee “keeps its ears to the ground” when it comes to donations, working with veteran groups, thrift stores and community members. They’ll do any minor repairs before placing the items in storage. Girten’s wife, Marion, a committee member and retired Naval chief petty officer, keeps an inventory that enables her to keep track of what they have and fill specific requests.
As with her husband, Marion enjoys helping veterans.
“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the joy and gratitude on their faces when we fill their homes with furniture,” she said. “Not only furniture is delivered, but hope as well. It’s been an incredible experience.”
Most of the donations, Girten said, have gone outside of Cumberland County to Bledsoe and Putnam counties.
“There isn’t a lot of demand here,” he said. “Cumberland is a pretty affluent area, and the available subsidized housing is limited.”
The rewards aren’t monetary but come in the form of tearful thanks and a hug or a thank you card from appreciative veterans.
“We made a delivery to a vet in his 60s,” Girten said. “He gave us a thank you card in which he wrote how much of a difference we made in his life.”
Dana Fordice is an Army veteran who left an abusive spouse in North Carolina earlier this year. She and her 10-year-old grandson came to Tennessee and lived in motel rooms and the home of friends from church for several months before moving into a subsidized home in Cookeville, June 4. That same day, the VSC made a delivery to her new home.
“They were wonderful,” Fordice said. “They brought a couch, tables, chairs, lamps, a queen-sized mattress, box spring and frame, bookshelves, and an extra nice patio set. If it weren’t for them, I’d still be looking for furniture on a limited budget and trying to figure out how to pay for delivery. It’s such a huge blessing. I glorify God for all their help.”
The Tennessee Valley Healthcare System works with veterans and their families to maintain housing through the HUD-VASH program and relies on partners in the community to link the veterans with various resources. Girten contacted the office last fall and asked how the Veterans Services Committee could help with the housing program. A partnership was born.
“The HUD-VASH program and veterans in the program have been very grateful for the work of the Cumberland County Elks Lodge,” said Charles Cobble, HUD-VASH case manager for the Upper Cumberland Region. “Not only are the Elks working to obtain furnishings for veterans who have been housed in the HUD-VASH program, but they have also acknowledged that veterans often experience some type of disability and have worked to deliver and set up this furniture for the veteran and their families.”