VFW, Walmart Help Homeless Veterans

Published 3:34 pm Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tom Hicks, with support from his VFW Post 7059 in Farmville, will tackle almost any problem if it will help a veteran. Two years ago the former Marine launched a Sock Drive for patients at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond and walked away with 1,500 pairs of socks in just 30 days. This year Hicks set his sights on an even bigger goal – providing warm winter clothing for homeless veterans. When Walmart came on board, Hicks and the VFW saw the project expand. In three weeks time, Walmart stores from Danville to Emporia joined the effort, providing 400 care bags for last week's Stand Down for Homeless Veterans in Richmond.

A day before the Dec. 12 Stand Down, held annually at the McGuire VA Center, five members of the VFW gathered at Tom Hicks' home in Prospect to load the collected items and take them to Richmond.

“I had been hearing about all these homeless veterans,” Hicks explained of his most recent project. “So I said – I think I'm going to talk to the VFW members and start a homeless veterans' drive.”

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Hicks' first stop in publicizing his clothing drive was The Farmville Herald. The poster he had in hand to post around town stated, “For the past decade our country has been at war. The veterans of these conflicts have returned home to find a failing economy with high unemployment and a home mortgage crises. Many have not been able to find jobs and afford a home. Winter is the most difficult season for the homeless, and it is fast approaching.”

According to statistics from the Veterans Affairs office in Washington, DC, Hicks noted, 68,000 veterans are homeless nationwide.

With only one month to complete the drive before the Stand Down on Dec. 12, it was an ambitious project. Nevertheless, Hicks was undeterred.

“Every Friday and Saturday morning I sat down at the VFW Hall waiting for donations,” he said. “People would come in there and drop off clothes. One man came in from Prospect and handed me $100. I went to Roses and bought coats, underwear, and hats and gloves.”

Collection boxes were also set up at the Prospect Diner, Farm Bureau, Main Street Lanes, and Kickin' Country (WVHL radio).

“All the local donations came from Farmville, Keysville, and Burkeville,” Hicks related. “I ran back and forth picking them up.”

Phone calls continued to come in as the month went by.

“I'd get a phone call at 7 o' clock at night,” he recalled. “They'd ask – 'is this Mr. Hicks who advertised in the paper?' I said yes and tell them I'd be there in 30 minutes. I actually went to two places to pick up just one coat. That's what I did. I was happy to put those coats in the pile. The veterans were happy to get them, too.”

This hands-on collection technique worked well with Hicks' Sock Drive two years ago. This project was inspired by a routine visit to McGuire by members of the Farmville VFW Post.

“What happened was, we went to McGuire to hand out the canteen,” Hicks related. “I was standing at the nurse's station and I heard a nurse come up and ask for socks. Another nurse told her – 'we're out of them.' She explained that because of the veterans' wounds, some patients went through five or six pair of socks.”

Hicks decided this situation was unacceptable.

“I came back here and talked to the guys at the VFW and started a sock campaign,” he said.

Hicks appeal, along with a photo of Hicks and his “Socks Box.” appeared in the Herald.

“Local churches started responding,” he related. “Before long everybody got involved. I ended up going back to McGuire a month later with 1,500 pairs of socks – nice crew socks, too.”

This year's clothing drive netted similar results. Numerous bags of warm winter clothing were piled on Hicks' porch last week waiting to be transported to McGuire. Included in the collection were 400 care bags donated by Walmart.

Walmart provided this summary of their involvement of the Stand Down in Richmond:

“Walmart partnered with their local VFW's and McGuire Hospital in Richmond to collect necessities of life for homeless veterans in their local communities. On Dec. 12, over 400 homeless vets were provided shelter, health screenings, food and entertainment at the Richmond VA Hospital, and Walmart associates presented them with care bags containing basic goods that they can use every day to care for themselves.”

As in the Sock Drive, Walmart's involvement in this project can be traced back to one man's zeal for helping veterans.

“I knew a Walmart employee in customer service,” Hicks related. “When I mentioned the homeless drive to her, she put me in touch with David Holton, manager of the Walmart in Farmville.”

Hicks explained his clothing drive to the Walmart manager, and a few days later was invited to come back to meet with Jade White, marketing manager for Walmart's South Central Virginia District that includes stores from Danville to Emporia.

At this point, Hicks admitted that he felt like he was getting in over his head, but like the good Marine that he is, Hicks persevered.

“I was standing there at Walmart waiting for that meeting with Mr. White and Mr. Holton,” Hicks said with a smile. “I remember saying, Lord, I need some help here. Five seconds later Pat Baldwin (VFW Auxiliary member) walked in the store. I was never so glad to see somebody – she went to the meeting with me and helped explain everything.”

White explained his reaction to the VFW's proposal. “After I met with the VFW members in Farmville I wanted to take this project to the next level,” he said. “I contacted the VA Hospital in Salem, and the Walmart stores in that area helped with their Stand Down earlier in the fall.”

White and his management team from stores throughout the market worked with local volunteers to fill the care bags.

“We put this all together in less than three weeks,” White commented. “This year Walmart provided over 750 care bags to help veterans. My goal for next year is to connect the dots and have every Walmart store in the state of Virginia participate.”

Walmart is also giving each VFW Post that took part a donation of $500 to

continue their effort of providing necessities to homeless veterans throughout the year.

White was at the Stand Down in Richmond last week to help with the distribution, as was Farmville's Walmart Manager David Holton.

“It was overwhelming and very humbling,” White commented.

“We all just worked together,” Holton added. “My dad was a veteran, so I was glad to help.”

The homeless statistics for veterans, noted local VFW Auxiliary Treasurer Pat Baldwin, has become a very big issue for both the VFW and its Auxiliary.

Baldwin explained that Cathy Graham, state president of the VFW Auxiliary, has initiated a special project, Final Salute Inc. Their mission is to provide homeless female veterans and their children with safe and suitable housing.

Summing up this year's Homeless Veterans Clothing Drive, Tom Hicks said, “The veterans themselves were real happy to get what they were getting. Every time I handed a man a pair of sweatpants he would respond by saying, “Thank you – I'm glad you care.” I told all of them – that's what we're here for. Their attitude was – I'm glad you're helping me, but I wish I could help myself.”

Hicks added that the generosity of all who took part in this year's event was unreal.

“Most people don't know what to do to help a veteran until someone like me comes along,” he said. “Then they respond.”

“My mission in life is to help a veteran,” Hicks concluded. “I feel like I did that last week at McGuire. I wish I had the capability to do more.”

Next year Farmville's VFW Post, with the help of Walmart, intends to do just that.