What started as a small birthday party/fundraiser has developed into a Kansas American Legion event that has raised thousands of dollars to help get veterans off the streets in the Kansas City, Mo., area.
In three years, the Hold ‘Em for Heroes fundraiser staged at first by American Legion LeRoy Hill Post 19 in Gardner, Kan., and later expanded to include Earl Collier Post 153 in Olathe, has raised more than $46,000 for a Kansas City nonprofit that builds tiny-communities for homeless veterans.
The fundraiser was started by Post 19 First Vice Commander Jeremiah Bull, who wanted to do something for his birthday party to benefit area veterans. Teaming up with Sons of The American Legion Squadron 19 member Robert Carver, the pair decided to do a Texas hold ‘em tournament and make a local nonprofit the beneficiary.
During a Facebook search Bull came across the Veterans Community Project (VCP), whose mission is to build “a specialized community of tiny-homes and onsite services to provide housing stability and address the underlying cause of the veteran’s homelessness.” Started in Kansas City, VCP is in the process of expanding to Missouri, Florida, Tennessee and Colorado.
“It was local,” Bull said. “And not only do they serve homeless veterans, they set up a community center right here in Kansas City that any veteran can come into off the street. (They) offer employment assistance and financial planning. Psychiatrists and social workers are on staff that work full-time.”
Playing cards just made sense for Bull, who served in the Army from 2003 to 2009, including two tours in Iraq, and now serves in the Kansas National Guard.
“It was just me and a bunch of my military buddies I served with,” he said. “We got together for my birthday. We played down range when we were in Iraq almost daily. We just decided to get together and play some Texas hold ‘em like we used to.”
Bull pitched the idea to Post 19’s American Legion Family and immediately got the OK to proceed. The event took place at Post 19 the first two years and grew considerably from Year 1 to Year 2.
“The first year was just kind of an idea,” bull said. “We had probably 40 to 50 people. We raised about $2,500. We were ecstatic raising (that). The next year we kind of got our act together, fixed some of the mistakes we made the first year so that we could improve on things. We raised $12,268 the second year.”
In the event’s second year, VCP representative Vincent Morales came to accept the donation. After speaking with Bull, the pair realized they’d served together at Fort Lewis, Wash., in Vilseck, Germany, and on two tours in Iraq.
“We reconnected during a charity event for veterans,” Bull said. “It's kind of what fueled our drive to make this event bigger.”
That happened this year. The February event “outgrew” Post 19, Bull said, so the decision was made to partner with – and hold the event at – Post 153 “because it’s about four times the size of ours,” Bull said. “We’re at full capacity there now. We had probably 400 to 500 people show up this year. And doubling our manpower between two posts just made our job that much easier.”
The fundraiser picked up a sponsor in the form of KCTV-5; evening news anchor Ellen McNamara even served as master of ceremonies for almost two hours. And the entire Legion Family got involved.
“This year we had 24 volunteers from our American Legion Family: Legion members, (Legion Riders), (Sons of The American Legion) members and Auxiliary members that all pitched in to make this happen this year,” Bull said. “It’s a lot of pride amongst our entire Legion Family.”
The larger-scale event resulted in more than $31,000 being raised this year and has the Legion Family members involved looking toward next year. Bull said four posts have committed to working the event in 2020, and by the fifth year the event will be a Department of Kansas Second District event. Bull said the event also provided Post 19 with 10 new members, but that’s just a side benefit to the mission of the fundraiser.
“Myself and everybody else that’s involved … don’t think that anybody who raises their right hand should ever be left behind,” Bull said. “People go down range and probably encounter some things that you’d never want to encounter in life. You come back and you fall on hard times, and sometimes people fall through the cracks and end up on the street. We’re trying to be proactive in Kansas City and see what we can do about ending veteran homelessness.”