It’s been 19 years since Tony DeJesus, of Big Blue Bug Solutions, started Operation ROVAC (Remember Our Veterans At Christmas), an event that has come to be as iconic during Christmas in Rhode Island as Nibbles Woodaway, the Big Blue Bug that stands guard over Interstate 95 in Providence. Operation ROVAC began when it came to Tony's attention that so many area veterans were without family or friends to celebrate the holidays. And now nearly two decades later, his caring, compassion and dedication have allowed thousands of area veterans to know just how much the citizens of Southern New England appreciate their service.
Tony and Operation ROVAC ask for donated unwrapped gifts that are collected and delivered to the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol, Rhode Island. "All too often, our older veterans are left without family, friends, and gifts during the holiday season," said DeJesus. "We want to make sure they are never, ever forgotten."
Just how important is it for a retired veteran to have someone who cares during the holiday season? As a retired addictions clinician, I have worked with many veterans throughout the years and allow me to share a story with you about a gentleman I worked with who served in Vietnam. His name was George, a local resident who lived in southeastern Massachusetts, and his life was filled with struggles following his service in Southeast Asia.
Just several weeks after graduating high school in 1966, he enlisted into the Army to “follow in the footsteps of my father.” In early 1967, George was deployed to Vietnam as an Army medic. During his time in battle, he saw death all too often.
“While my friends were home having children,” he once said remorsefully, “bringing life into the world, I saw it leaving, sometimes in the most horrible of ways.” After one particularly brutal battle, that, according to George, “went on for about 90 minutes but seemed like weeks,” he was critically injured and evacuated to an army hospital.
“While I laid in that bed, my leg shattered,” George shared, “all kinds of rational and irrational emotions went through my head -- guilt for not being there for my buddies, disgraced for not being like my father and staying in the fight, and fear for what my life would be like when I returned home.”
After months of medical care, he was sent back to the states, not to the fanfare of a returning hero, but to a nation divided by an “unpopular” war. “I heard all the taunts like the others,” continued George. ”I was called a baby killer, my car was hit with eggs and my family, especially my father, looked at me strangely for not completing my service despite my crippling injury. To him, I was a coward. I never felt good enough.”
George turned to alcohol to cope with the physical and emotional pain that he felt. He eventually reunited with an old girlfriend from high school and their relationship led to marriage. “We had four kids, all boys, and my drinking slowed as I tried to be a good father, but honestly, I just didn’t know how to be one. Losing buddies in battle taught me not to get close to anyone, even my own children. I usually felt empty inside.”
Then disaster struck, George’s middle child died after a severe asthma attack. “This sent me spiraling downhill, coping with alcohol instead of turning to my wife for support. Our marriage, which was already rocky, fell apart and I was devastated, drinking more than ever.”
“I ended up homeless – no friends, no family and living in my car,” said George. “That was on and off for years, a time I call my dark days. I went from job to job, showering at the local YMCA in town and eating in soup kitchens.”
“In October of 1988, a local social service agency found me a room in the Taunton area and things started looking a little brighter, but in November of that year, my oldest son, who also became an alcoholic, killed himself. That was it for me. I felt responsible, I didn't know where to turn,” George shared tearfully. "When I went to the funeral, my remaining boys sat and supported their mom, I was left sitting alone, an outcast, mostly due to my own behavior."
"That Christmas season, I would walk through downtown Taunton and watch the families having fun on the Taunton Green, fathers playing with their kids, laughter, hugging, and I realized just how lost I was. I had no one. I went back to my room and made a choice to end it all, I just couldn’t do it anymore,” George stated.
The decision to take his life was easy but doing it proved difficult. “I tried several times by taking my depression medication with booze but would wake up days later, sick and soaked with vomit and urine. I was even a failure at killing myself.”
Then, a few days before Christmas, George remembered an event that changed his life. “I was laying on my couch, hadn’t eaten in days and was watching a kid's Christmas show on television when a knock came at my door. It was a couple of kids and two adults from the local church. They had gifts -- for me! I don't know how they got my name or even knew where I lived, but there they were.”
George recalled what was in those packages. “It was a pair of gloves, shaving cream, deodorant and a bag of Hershey Kisses. I started crying uncontrollably, I must have scared the daylights out of those kids. But it was the most beautiful pair of gloves I had ever seen and the most delicious chocolate I had ever tasted. More important, somebody actually cared about me. They didn’t even know me, but they cared.”
George went on to find sobriety and became an AA sponsor for other veterans who struggled with addiction. “I would tell the vets I worked with about that Christmas in 1988. It wasn’t just a pair of gloves or a bag of candy, but it was the fact that someone remembered me, someone who didn’t know me cared. Just knowing that saved my life and gave me a reason to live.”
George is no longer with us, but prior to his death, he did reunite with his remaining two sons and although the relationship was not perfect, they came to respect and understand their father. And it all began with a visit by a caring few during that Christmas season.
I relate that story because those things that Tony requests as gifts for the veterans are material items that they surely need, but more importantly, it’s what those gifts represent for them at Christmas. It is Tony’s mission to make sure that our veterans know that there are people who care about them.
Gifts that are needed include;
Board games and playing cards
Socks and underwear
Comfy pajamas and slippers
Sweats and sweaters
Gloves, jackets, and scarves
Pants and shirts
Journals and pens
Those who are interested in getting involved can bring unwrapped gifts to the Big Blue Bug Solutions Office location at 161 O’Connell St., Providence, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., through December 19, or if you can't get to them, Tony will send someone out to you to pick up the gifts. He will then deliver them to the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol, Rhode Island, where the gifts will be distributed to the more than 200 men and women who live there!
And remember, we do have women veterans who are living there as well, so when purchasing gifts, keep them in mind.
But there is also another option for those who do not want to make the trek to Providence. This year, Connelly Law Offices has joined with Tony’s Operation ROVAC as a drop-off location for those gifts.
“What Tony does for our veterans every year is phenomenal,” said Attorney RJ Connelly, who also served our country. “We wanted to help and when Tony said we could be a drop off location in this part of the state, we jumped at the opportunity!” And to encourage donations, RJ has 'sweetened the pot'.
“For every donation someone makes at our office, they will receive a raffle ticket for a prize of a simple estate planning package, consisting of a will and powers of attorney. We will hold the drawing on December 18 at our office,” said Connelly. The drop-off location will be at Connelly Law Offices, 372 Broadway, Pawtucket. Gifts can be dropped there Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm.
"Remember, it doesn’t take much to change someone’s life and make their holidays bright. Thanks to our generous community we have been able to make this amazing charity drive a success and it is that support that will allow continued support for local vets for many more years to come," said Tony.
We agree with you Tony, one hundred percent!
Elves for Elders
When it comes to Christmas and Santa’s elves, we imagine a busy workshop at the North Pole cranking out toys for all the little ones. But did you know that right here in Rhode Island there are elves hard at work serving our seniors?
They are called Elves for Elders and have been cranking out the gifts for 14 years, providing presents for those seniors who may not otherwise receive anything during the holidays.
Maxine Hutchins, a member of Seniors RULE, the non-profit association that sponsors the event along with All is Well Home Care, a company that she works for on a full-time basis, is hard at work making sure that as many seniors as possible get a gift at this holiday time. “At this time of year everyone thinks about children and yes, that is very important, but so too are our seniors,” said Hutchins.
And just how did this very special program get started?
“I was working in senior housing at a site with 200 residents as a social worker and I decided that I was going to hand-make Christmas cards for every person,” Hutchins said. “People told me I was crazy, but it was something I just wanted to do and I realized after I had, how something so simple can make such a difference.”
“One of the women at the facility came to me afterward and thanked me and told me that that was the only Christmas card that she had received and I thought to myself, the only Christmas card, what about a gift?” Hutchins said. “This woman never had any children and most of her friends had already passed, so she really was all alone.”
Hutchins left the senior housing program sometime later and began working in the home healthcare field, and there, she said, saw even more of a need.
“It was never about money; these people were not looking for elaborate gifts,” she said. “It was more basic need items that they wanted. The majority of seniors are on a fixed income and they just don’t have the money to buy these very basic items.”
And what is Seniors RULE, the non-profit that sponsors the event?
“It’s an association made up of women members who provide services for seniors,” said Hutchins. “Its members coordinate various programs throughout the year and at Christmas, we focus on the holiday gift program, better known as elves for elders.”
And just how does it work?
It begins with trees that display stars at various malls throughout the region. These stars include a gift for an elder that customers can pick up and purchase. All tress will be up at Emerald Square Mall in Attleboro, Wrentham Village Outlets, Catherine Specialty Clothing in Cranston, Mission Nutrition in Cranston and Warwick Mall. The trees are taken down from their respective posts on December 10.
Hutchins said the way it works is that patrons pick up a star at the mall’s courtesy desk. The star will have the senior’s first name and the type of the present they would like. As examples, a woman named “Mary” might want a pair of size 8 slippers or and a man named “Sam” may want a pair of extra-large pajamas. The person purchases the item or items and returns them to the courtesy desk with the star.
“We receive a lot of requests for clothes, but it’s not confined to just that,” she said. “People can ask for anything such as toiletries, personal items or even things outside the box. We want to give people what they ask for and have a happy holiday.”
Hutchins suggests that the gifts come in a gift bag with the star attached to the bag. As stated earlier, all donations are due back to the respective malls by December 10. A few days after that date, Hutchins and her “Elves” will collect the items from the malls, sort and arrange the gifts to be sent to the appropriate facilities, have a wrapping party and deliver them.
More information on this event, you can contact Maxine Mae Hutchins 401-286-3821 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And for our listeners of Connelly Law's Southcoast Seniors Radio, heard every Thursday evening at 4:00 pm on am790 WPRV, both Tony DeJesus and Maxine Hutchins will be checking in on our December 5 program to update us on the progress of Operation ROVAC and Elves for Elders.
We encourage you to donate and share this email with others to spread the word on Operation ROVAC and Elves for Elders. Join us on am790 WPRV on December 5 at 4:00 pm for an update on these wonderful events.