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Food bank for struggling veterans a valuable resource

The Veterans Association Food Banks in Edmonton and Calgary offer food, resources and other supports to military vets.

Struggling veterans are able to swallow their pride and ask for help thanks to a unique food bank for former service members only.

"They don't want to go to a community food bank and take from the people they were sworn to protect," said Charles Redeker, operations manager for the Veterans Association Food Bank (VAFB) in Calgary. 

"There is a pride wall they have to let go of. They can do that here because the first person they'll likely see is another veteran. The only thing is we are not in uniform," he said.

The non-profit charity--a member of Food Banks Alberta--was created in August 2018 following the closure of the Royal Canadian Legion's food bank earlier that year.

Marie Blackburn, the daughter of a Korean War veteran who lost her job when the Legion food bank closed, has been a catalyst in the formation of the VAFB and is now its executive director.

Redeker, a veteran whose military career was cut short due to an injury during training, says he gets a boost from the life-changing help provided to other veterans.

"We are way more than a food bank. The food gets them in the door and then we find out what else we can do to help them," said Redeker, noting the advocacy, outreach, emergency assistance and even a thrift store that are part of the VAFB mandate. "We might hear about an eviction notice or a utility disconnection. They might be unemployed because they are in so much physical pain. We can help out."

Melanie Harris, a 20-year army veteran who served on four overseas tours, says she finds purpose managing and serving as financial coordinator for the Edmonton VAFB. 

"I'm on a disability pension from Veterans Affairs and I volunteer here full-time," said 47-year-old Harris, adding her having PTSD makes it easier for fellow vets to reach out. "We have common ground. I can relate to anyone coming through these doors. There is no shame here."

While the majority of VAFB's 600-plus clients are retired military veterans in the province, it helps vets across Canada, and assists RCMP veterans and working serviceman.

"Last Christmas, we were contacted by a young serviceman in Edmonton who came home to an empty house after breaking up with his girlfriend. We helped him out," said Harris.

An uplifting VAFB assist came late in 2019 when the Calgary office got a call from a veteran looking for a week's supply of dog food--nothing else.

"Our staff member thought it was an odd request so they did a follow up, went to his place and discovered he had sold all his belongings and was going to take his own life," Redeker said.

The desperate veteran, who was having physical and mental health issues, told the team member he asked for a week's supply of dog food "because he thought that is how long it would take for his body to be found," recalled Redeker. "We were able to get him disability benefits and on AISH; the tools and resources to have an improved quality of life."

"He has gone for his second hip replacement and comes into our office regularly to visit," said Redeker, adding the man still has his Yorkshire terrier pet.

Harris says that story also illustrates the importance of VAFB’s Pet Care Promise, which helps veterans take care of their animals.

"If they have veterinary bills or they're having trouble paying for pet food, they'll get help," she said.

VAFB had an operating budget of about $2 million this past year, with the bulk of funds coming from donations.

"We still don't receive a large amount of money from government. We primarily rely on the generosity of individuals and corporations," said Redeker.

While the VAFB has no connection with the Royal Canadian Legion, Redeker said individual branches have provided support.

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