Providing hope amid the tornado rubble

Nestled among typical discount shops and fast-food restaurants in a strip mall in Bowling Green, Ky., is an otherwise non-descript store with 8,500 square feet of clothing, furniture, household supplies and a well-stocked food pantry.

But for veterans and homeless people, it represents an oasis of hope.

The Veterans Alliance Center provides these items for free to any veteran or homeless person. No questions asked, other than to help a person in need find exactly what they are looking for in the center that resembles a consignment shop.

“It's not your typical free clothing store where everything's piled up or boxed,” explained Bob “Gunny” Wilson, the founder and president of the Kentucky Veterans Brigade, the nonprofit that runs the center. “Our volunteers sort everything by size, and do a little bit by color. Our store is set up like any other store. But we give you a bag and you fill it up with anything you need. When you check out, instead of handing over cash, you just say, ‘Goodbye,’ and our transaction is done.”

In the aftermath of the storm, the center expanded its operating hours and clientele, offering their items for free to any community members in need. But instead of one bag per visit, victims can fill as many bags as they need.

(The American Legion is also assisting members and posts affected by the storms through its National Emergency Fund. Tornado victims can apply here for an expedited grant. Donations can be made through this webpage.)

Wilson, who is also the center’s director, did not hesitate when the tornadoes wreaked havoc upon his community.

“Every time you hear about a disaster on TV, somebody says, ‘It looks like a combat zone. I usually smirk at that and I usually make fun of that because they don't know,’” said Wilson, a Marine veteran who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. “However, here in Bowling Green, in some of those areas, other than something on fire, it does look like a combat zone. We have trees that have been dragged across streets. Flattened telephone poles down. Houses on one side of the street completely destroyed and the other side of the street, there are ornaments still hanging outside on the porch. It's just bizarre. Disastrous and terrible all at the same time.”

American Legion Post 23 is a primary partner with the center.

“The American Legion is a big part of our group and they work with us practically daily,” said Wilson, a member of Post 23. “They not only give moral support. They have resource support. They do financial support. If there's a situation, maybe it's new, or I'm not familiar with it, or maybe it's a little bit too high financially, we'll call Post 23. Nine times out of 10, whatever that need is, they'll be able to take care of it.”

Jim Manley, the finance officer at Post 23, serves as the primary liaison with the alliance. He handles donations, both securing funds as well as connecting those in need with the items they seek.

“We have to fight for all of our people, to be able to give them a decent life,” said Manley, a Marine veteran. “Most of us at The American Legion, we're not rich people, but we're retired people and we do have enough money to live on. There's a lot of people when you look around the streets, poor people, they got nothing. It's the most important thing in the world to me.”

Manley estimates that the post has donated $1 million over his years as finance officer. “It’s really rewarding,” he said. “You really feel great. It's not anything that Jim Manley did. I'm using American Legion's money. We're using donated stuff from folks. It’s something that everybody is a part of.”

Since the realization of the destructive tornadoes became known, the outreach from other states has been nonstop. American Legion posts are sending trailers full of relief supplies like clothing, food and equipment.

For example, Post 88 in Burrillville, R.I., filled and dispatched a trailer, provided by American Van Lines, on Dec. 20. Among its contents were a dozen pallets of relief aid and a special 6x10-foot American flag.

Post 88 Commander Ray Trinque was inspired when he saw television footage of Mayfield, Ky., Mayor Debra Cotterill pick up a tattered American flag from the rubble. “It’s the least that we can do for our brothers and sisters, and the people in Kentucky.”

Among the aid headed to the center are 13 generators, chainsaws, sleeping bags, batteries, power cords, flashlights, toys, dog food, non-perishable foods, toiletries, paper goods, work gloves, new blankets and comforters, and more.

Also included is a “Rhode Island Hope” flag signed by residents, destined for Post 23.