WEST WARWICK — Standing before a firetruck and a police cruiser Friday morning, members of the West Warwick fire and police departments handed over a $2,148 check to an organization whose mission it is to stand up for local veterans in need.
Founded in 1993 by a group of Vietnam veterans who were determined to help homeless veterans in their community, Operation Stand Down Rhode Island has since provided crucial wrap-around services to thousands of veterans statewide.
It’s work that the West Warwick police and fire departments hold dear.
“We strongly support our veterans and our active service members, and this is certainly an organization that’s near and dear to our hearts,” said Major Ernest Lavigne of the West Warwick Police Department, noting that the police department has several veterans and active duty members among its ranks.
Operation Stand Down serves some 2,500 Rhode Islanders annually, said Erik Wallin, executive director of the nonprofit. In addition to its employment training and legal assistance services, the organization runs eight housing facilities across the state. Among them, the Brian St. Germain House on Providence Street houses 10 veterans at any given time.
“It’s an important mission to us and we like to support it,” West Warwick Police Chief Mark Knott said.
And Operation Stand Down counts on that kind of community support in order to achieve its mission.
Donations like the one made this week by the police and fire departments are critical for ensuring Operation Stand Down is able to continue the important work it’s been doing for decades, Wallin said Friday.
“It allows us to do the little things that make a really big difference,” he said.
As the state’s leading nonprofit supporter of veterans, Operation Stand Down relies largely on grant funding. Grants, however, don’t cover things like heating assistance, for example, for veterans who can’t afford to heat their homes, Wallin said.
“Or, say, a veteran who is trying to get back on their feet and has a job but needs a tire replaced,” he added, noting that donations are also commonly used to purchase grocery store gift cards for veterans.
“We can do things like that [thanks to donations].”
The funds donated Friday were raised through a combination of efforts by West Warwick’s police and fire departments, including a “Double-Down December” challenge, a follow-up to the police department’s annual “No-Shave November” campaign.
The bulk of the donation to Operation Stand Down — around $2,000 — was raised during a “battle of the chiefs” bartending competition.
“It’s that classic rivalry between the firefighters and police officers,” Lavigne said of the fundraiser. “And to come together for a great cause — it was a lot of fun.”
Held in December at VFW Post 449 as part of its “Charity on Tap” series, the event pitted West Warwick’s police and fire chiefs against one another to find out who could whip up the most impressive cocktails.
Fire Chief Jeffrey Varone earned the most votes and the title of top bartender.
“It was a good night for a great cause,” Varone said Friday, “and we salute the members of Operation Stand Down for helping veterans in the transition back to civilian life.”
Likewise, Wallin said, members of his organization salute firefighters and police officers for the services they provide.
“Everyone who works at Stand Down is a veteran or a family member of a veteran, so we appreciate the service of our policemen and firemen,” Wallin said. “They put on a uniform just like we all did.”
And for veterans returning home, Wallin continued, feeling the support of their communities means a lot.
“Veterans serve our state and our country abroad,” he said, “and then they come home to know that the people in the community — people like [members of] the police and fire departments — appreciate their service and recognize their needs means a great deal.”