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Volunteers help keep homeless veterans warm and fed

Eagle-Tribune - 1/7/2018

Jan. 07--HAVERHILL -- Joe D'Amore has scoured areas in Lawrence and Haverhill where homeless live and congregate to offer them basic necessities for survival, including food, bottled water and clothing. He's done this year-round for the last three years with help from a network of volunteers working under the auspices of a fundraising effort he calls "Merrimack Valley Hope Mission."

He says he was searching for a way to gain a level of spiritual fulfillment that he wasn't getting in other ways.

"I was looking for a way to live out my faith," he said.

But for D'Amore, it didn't feel like he was doing enough, so two years ago he expanded his street outreach with help from Common Ground Ministries in Haverhill by holding bag lunch distributions on Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. in GAR Park.

As he got to know some of the people who showed up each week, he learned that many of them had served in the military.

"People who were coming through our bagged lunch lines began identifying themselves as veterans, and they also have basic needs including clothing and food," D'Amore said. "Some are suffering from mental health issues, some have lost everything, whether a marriage, home or career, and we've come to the realization that there's a subset of homeless who are veterans."

He decided to once again expand his street outreach efforts, only this time by focusing on homeless veterans in partnership with Dana and Salvatore DeFranco, owners of Battle Grounds Coffee Company in downtown Haverhill.

D'Amore, a Groveland resident who works full time as a financial adviser, has given much of his time and money to the area's homeless population, and now he's asking others not to sacrifice their time, but to dig into their pockets to help homeless veterans in particular.

And he's making it as simple as possible by creating a wish list at online retailer Amazon for specific winter clothing items. All you have to do is click on an item on the list and charge it to your Amazon account or credit card.

He's also asking that gift cards be dropped off at Battle Grounds, a business that is passionate about helping veterans in need.

D'Amore along with Donald Jarvis, a peer support specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services, recently asked Dana and Sal DeFranco of Battle Grounds to be part of the new outreach project. Sal DeFranco is a former Navy SEAL.

"They loved the idea and graciously offered their coffee shop as a collection and distribution center," D'Amore said.

Dana and Sal recently hosted a Veterans Day breakfast that many veterans as well as local officials and D'Amore attended.

"I realized that Sal, Dana and I are kindred spirits, and that we all care about veterans who have fallen through the cracks," D'Amore said.

"We're very loud in asking people for stuff, but we're very quiet in our distributions," he added. "It's a matter of dignity and respect for these veterans."

During Friday food distributions at GAR Park, D'Amore and his volunteers from area churches, youth groups and families hand out upwards of 100 bagged lunches to the poor and homeless and those living in overnight shelters. Each bag contains a homemade sandwich, a bottle of water, a bag of chips, fresh fruit, and a dessert or energy bar.

"Friday afternoons after 11 a.m. there are no food outlets for the homeless in Haverhill until the next morning, so we're helping to close that hunger gap," he said. "Many of our recipients take more than one bag, as we have families who take four or five. We also have people living in cars and vans who drop by and take a meal."

They also deliver an additional 100 bagged lunches to homeless shelters in Haverhill and to the Common Ground drop-in center on Winter Street.

He says the veterans he's encountered in his Friday lunch lines are humble in a sense they don't bring attention to themselves as veterans, some of whom are decorated veterans.

"It's gratifying that someone would personally entrust me with their personal stories and accept things from me," D'Amore said.

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 23, D'Amore, Jarvis and Sal and Dana DeFranco are appealing to the public to donate fleece rolls, hats, gloves, socks and scarves as well as gift cards to either Market Basket or Walmart to be distributed directly to area veterans and their families in need this winter.

Battle Grounds is collecting new items for veterans, but the DeFrancos are asking for gift cards in particular.

"I'd like to encourage people to use the website but the best things to drop off at Battle Grounds are gift cards," Dana DeFranco said.

"Our mission at Battle Grounds is to help our community in any way possible," she added. "When it comes to our veteran community, it really hits home for us."

"Our motto is 'Country, Community, Coffee,' and 'here to serve,'" she said.

The staff at Battle Grounds will happily accept and document your donation, and Sal and Dana DeFranco will ensure donated items are distributed directly to veterans and their families in need.

D'Amore said he will work with local veteran's organizations to reach as many veterans as possible.

Donors are also encouraged to use an Amazon Wish List to make purchases online. Search for "Battle Veteran's Homelessness" on Facebook, which includes the Amazon Wish List site, www.amazon.com/gp/registry/wishlist/1WNCUP1J8Z983/ref=nav_wishlist_lists_1.

Amazon then ships the donated items to the group for rapid distribution.

"We already received approximately 25 sleeping bags, 25 blankets as well as dozens of hats and gloves, all of which were new, and have already distributed them to veterans and their families," D'Amore said. "We don't want to hold onto anything, as it's cold and veterans need these items now."

D'Amore has also reached out to area veterans organizations to promote the project.

"My hope is very clear, that the volume of donations is sufficient so that our distribution can expand to veterans organizations throughout the area," he said. "Our goal is also $5,000 worth of gift cards, and we ask that people purchase them in $25 to $100 denominations if possible."

A special celebration -- and the last date to donate -- is planned for Feb. 23 at Battle Grounds.

For more information, contact Dana DeFranco at dana@battlecoffee.com or Joe D'Amore at jdamore@merrimackvalleyhopemission.org.


(c)2018 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.)

Visit The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.) at www.eagletribune.com

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