BEMIDJI — Tucked away at the end of a road just outside Bemidji, a group of volunteers gathered Tuesday morning to pack up a semi-trailer with bags of donated items. In the 15-degree weather, a small crew tossed bags of clothing to one another, moving them down the line, and slowing filling up the vast space inside the truck. Inside a nearby building, other volunteers sorted through items, organizing other items into respective piles and bags.
A week later, they’d be right back in that same spot, supporting veterans through Chapter 7 of the Disabled Veterans of America. For that matter, they’ve becoming back year after year to raise funds for former service members in their community. Many in the group are disabled veterans themselves.
The actual donations do not go to veterans. Instead, the DAV sells them to a thrift store chain, Savers, which pays a given amount per pound of material. The DAV then uses the proceeds to help veterans in need. One month, it may help a disabled veteran pay for their heat. Another month, it may help another disabled veteran buy groceries.
“Anytime a veteran in need comes and asks for something, we have the funds,” Dave Myers, DAV Adjutant, said.
Every year, the local branch of the organization raises between $30,000 to $40,000 for area veterans. From January through September this year, volunteers logged more than 2,000 hours.
As a whole organization, the DAV helps more than 1 million “veterans every year connect with health care, disability, employment, education and financial benefits they have earned,” according to its website.
While the volunteers loaded up the semi of donations on Tuesday to sell, another building just a few steps away was filled with items the DAV simply gives away: electric wheelchairs, hospital beds and crutches, among other items.
“We move a lot of product,” said Gene Schwantes, junior vice commander for the local chapter.
Not all the work happens at the warehouse. On Mondays and Fridays, volunteers go around the area and collect the donations left in the large, green bins around town. In addition to the bins in Bemidji, there are bins in Cass Lake, Blackduck and Solway. They take the donations to the local DAV chapter’s headquarters just out of town west of Bemidji. Twice a month, a driver takes the semi down to the Twin Cities.
Not all those who volunteer with the organization are veterans. Kim Kolkin and Pat Morgan were two of the volunteers helping sort through all the different donations this Tuesday. Kolkin first became involved with the group around six years ago when she called the DAV to see if they needed anything left over from her rummage sale. Now, she makes it out to lend a hand nearly every Tuesday. Morgan's late husband was a disabled veteran. She kept on volunteering with the organization after he passed away.
Mid-morning, the crew left behind the semi and bags of donations to have coffee and doughnuts in the break room. Briefly going over business, they soon drifted into shooting the breeze and catching up with one another about recent happenings.
Aside from providing financial help to veterans, the chapter provides a number of other services as well, working alongside the county Veterans Service office.
“We kind of do a little bit of everything,” DAV Commander Mike Zimmerman said.
The group hasn’t always been in their current building. Prior to a few years ago, they were bouncing around from place to place. For quite a while, they used the armory. They also used to rent storage space to work out of.
“When we started, nobody knew about us,” said Bruce Tiegen, chairman of the clothing program.