Mr. Patrick Gleason & Mr. Don Jackson, USN, Retired, Honored as American Red Cross 2017 Military Heroes

“As a recovering alcoholic and addict, Jesse Brown VA Medical Center saved my life,” U.S. Navy veteran, Don Jackson says. “I was committed to the hospital for two months back in 2007. They built me back up.”

Once a patient of the hospital, Don has since joined the hospital staff. Now he looks in the eyes of other veterans every day, knowing exactly where they’ve come from and where they’re capable of going. As the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center voluntary program support specialist, he and his supervisor, Patrick Gleason, the chief of voluntary services, worked together to fill a need to address veterans’ hunger.

Don and Patrick understood that many veterans, from WWII to the recently deployed, were dealing with hunger and homelessness. So, they came up with the idea to create an on-site veterans’ food pantry right there at the hospital. Together they created a program unlike any other in the country.

“I still remember the day. We were sweeping the floor of the armory, saying we’ve just got to do more to help our needy vets,” Patrick said. “We knew there would be challenges. We’re a hospital first and foremost. How do we create the space to store food? Protect identities? Where do we put the leftovers? And how do we
convince management this isn’t distracting us from the day-to-day care we already provide?”

The pantry was an innovative idea well outside their job descriptions. But slowly, the answers came. And soon, the nation’s first veterans’ hospital food pantry was born.

In partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository and several other local community organizations, the Jesse Brown VA Veterans’ Food Pantry brings dignity back to the table for veterans’ families all over Chicago.

Instead of being handed bags of pre-loaded groceries, veterans are paired with a volunteer personal shopper to help them as they choose their own goods. The volunteer shopper is especially helpful to the many disabled vets who visit the pantry.

Operating every Tuesday, nearly 200 veterans come to receive much needed food, support and camaraderie.

“I’ve had veterans tell me these are their family’s groceries for two weeks out of the month,” Patrick says. “And some line up as early at 5:30 a.m. to purely socialize with their fellow vets,” Don adds. “They just love it.”

Since its opening on Veteran’s Day in 2013, the pantry has served more than 5,000 veterans and their families.

The Chicago pantry has become an innovative model influencing other veteran hospitals around the nation to open pantries.

As Don puts it, “What comes from the heart goes to the heart. Sometimes just listening to their stories and needs can save their life. I know that.”

The Military Award is presented to an active, reserve, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), or retired member(s) of the Armed Forces, or military supporter, who acted above and beyond the call of duty or have made an ongoing commitment to the community

Follow #RedCrossHeroes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates about the 2017 Heroes. For more information about the 2017 Heroes Breakfast, click here.

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