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Bryan Chambers: Riding for a reason

Jun. 22, 2013 @ 12:19 AM

Gary Day could still be sleeping in his car at Harris Riverfront Park.

That's what he and his wife were faced with last year after he was diagnosed with lupus, an auto-immune disease that left a painful rash on his body when his skin was exposed to sunlight. The symptoms became so unbearable that he was forced to quit a construction job that had provided his family a steady income for many years.

Day, 55, attempted to reinvent his career by taking culinary classes at Mountwest Community and Technical College. The heat from cooking in a kitchen, however, made his symptoms flare up.

"My skin boils like a vampire in the movies when it's exposed to heat or sunlight," Day told me one morning a few weeks ago as we sat on the shaded front porch of his Huntington apartment. "The only time I can come outside is when it's cloudy."

With few options left, a friend who worked at the Huntington City Mission recommended that Day pay a visit to the Homeless Veterans Resource Center in downtown Huntington. Day, who served in the Marines in 1975 before he was honorably discharged for a bad knee, had never heard of the place.

Over the following months, he met with a case worker several times and became eligible to receive his medical benefits. He and his wife also moved from the tight quarters of their Chevrolet Monte Carlo into an apartment thanks to a HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program voucher that he received through the Resource Center.

Day's case worker now is helping him apply to change his honorable discharge from the Marines to a medical discharge, which would make him eligible for a pension. His wife works for a home health care agency, but it's barely enough to pay rent and utilities, he said.

"It scares me a little bit when I think where we would be without the Homeless Veterans Resource Center," Day said. "It's been nothing but a godsend."

It's success stories like Day's that make me proud to be part of an extensive fundraising effort for the Homeless Veterans Resource Center for the second consecutive year with 10 of my cycling friends.

Our group, Tri-State Cyclists for Veterans, has spent the past six months hosting bowling parties, cycling events, spaghetti dinners and more to deliver much needed funds to the Resource Center. Our work has only begun, however, as we launch a six-day, 450-mile bicycle ride from Huntington to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., this morning from the starting line of The Herald-Dispatch West Virginia 5K Championship. We will be faced with more than 25,000 feet of climbing over West Virginia's mountainous terrain, breathtaking descents and logging trucks that have little remorse for guys in Spandex. That still pales in comparison to the sacrifices that so many of our service men and women have made.

Of all the veterans-based charities to help, you might ask why we chose the Homeless Veterans Resource Center. The Center is an advocate for the most vulnerable segment of our veteran population. The VA-run facility is not a homeless shelter. Its mission is to provide veterans who are either homeless or at risk with the information and skills they need to find permanent housing and become employed. It serves 24 counties in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

On site, there are social workers who assist veterans with accessing medical care, transitional housing, permanent housing, legal issues, substance abuse issues and employment services. The Center also has laundry facilities, a food pantry and a community donation room that accepts clothing, furniture and other household items. It offers budgeting-skills classes through United Way of the River Cities, one of its partner agencies.

I'm thrilled to say that we have raised more than $21,000 this year for the Homeless Veterans Resource Center, bringing our two-year total to almost $50,000.

The money has allowed the Resource Center to purchase kitchen and bathroom necessities, air mattresses, grocery store gift cards, work clothes, prescriptions, vacuums, microwaves and hundreds of bus passes, among other things. These items are critical for a veteran once they find permanent housing. These resources also would not be available without the community's support because they are not part of the VA's appropriation to the Resource Center.

The community deserves a pat on the back for this effort. I believe it yet again proves that our Appalachian culture possesses an unrelenting willingness to give in a time of need.

Day echoed those sentiments during our meeting a few weeks ago. His adoptive father was a Baptist minister in Guyandotte who suffered from kidney problems when Day was growing up. Day remembers the church and business community rallying to put out collection jars across town to help his father pay for his medical bills.

"This community has always been very caring and compassionate when people are at their most vulnerable," he said. "The Resource Center is another example of that."

In addition to raising awareness about the plight of our homeless veterans, this year's ride will have an extra special meaning to me. One year ago today, while our group cycled from Huntington to Charleston, I had a conversation with Richard Eichberger of Scott Depot. Eichberger joined us on the first day of our ride last year because his son had been in the military for three years and was in the middle of a one-year deployment to Afghanistan. Eichberger spoke about how proud he was of his son and how strong his daughter-in-law was for playing the role of a single mother to two children while her husband was at war.

I never imagined I would find myself in Eichberger's shoes. That all changed when my 19-year-old son, Trey, enlisted in the Army this spring after completing a year at Marshall University. He left for boot camp at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., on May 27. He's scheduled to graduate from boot camp in August and will spend 16 weeks afterward in San Antonio as he trains to become a medic.

We have received two letters from Trey now. Despite losing track of what time or day it is, he says he likes boot camp thus far. He told me before he left that no matter what mental or physical challenges were thrown at him, he could still look forward to eating three meals a day and sleeping a few hours each night.

Reading those letters were a relief to his mother and me. Enlisting in the military was an option Trey started pursuing in January. We weren't sure whether he would follow through but it all became very real when he signed on the dotted line.

Seeing him leave was one of the proudest -- and one of the rawest -- moments for me as a father. Thinking about the potential dangers that your son or daughter may face in the military can be scary as hell. But I try to temper those emotions with knowing that he is a mature, young adult who put a lot of thought into this honorable decision.

There's no question I will seek advice from Eichberger, who is cycling to Washington with us this year. The experience has made me realize that it's not just one person who makes a sacrifice when they enlist in the military. It's the spouse, children, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters as well.

Bryan Chambers is a cycling enthusiast and a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. You can follow progress of the ride on Twitter @BryanChambersHD or on Facebook by joining "Homeless Veterans Ride 2013."

How you can help

There are two easy ways to make a donation to the Homeless Veterans Resource Center to show your support for Tri-State Cyclists for Veterans' bicycle ride from Huntington to Washington, D.C.

ONLINE: If you have a PayPal account, donations can be sent to cyclist4vets@aol.com.

CHECKS: Checks can be made out to "VA Volunteer Services" with "homeless program ride" in the memo line. Mail to Homeless Veterans Resource Center (ATTN: LeeAnn Bills), 624 9th St., Huntington, WV 25701. All donations are tax-deductible. Simply request a return tax-deduction letter when you send in your donation.




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