Poway veterans step up for each other

Poway Veterans Organization co-founders Ed Berger, left, Moon Rash, second from left, and Bill McKibbin, right, with charity golf tournament director Nick Yorio, second from right, at the Country Club of Rancho Bernardo on Monday. Not pictured: co-founder Dennis Rasumussen. (Charlie Neuman / Photo by Charlie Neuman)

Pam Kragen | San Diego Union Tribune – August 15, 2017

When a group of friends started the Poway Veterans Organization in 2014, their goal was to lend a hand to military veterans living in Poway and Ramona.

But somewhere along the way, that mission grew. Over the past three years, the small, all-volunteer group has helped out veterans from Imperial Beach to Palomar Mountain and from Spring Valley to Vista.

Co-founder Ed Berger said the reason is simple.

“It’s hard to say no,” said Berger, who spent 22 years in the U.S. Navy. “We know what these veterans have gone through. Every one of these veterans is a special case, with their own unique character and circumstances. We treat them all as needy and deserving.”

This summer, the group is overseeing home repair projects for two veterans in the Vista area. In the past, they’ve repaired flood damage for a 97-year-old woman veteran in Ramona; donated a piano to the Veterans Administration hospital in La Jolla; unloaded moving vans for a veteran with multiple sclerosis in Ramona; driven veterans to doctor’s appointments; donated meals to military families at Thanksgiving; purchased Girl Scout cookies for patients in military hospitals; and helped a veteran send truckloads of donations to typhoon victims in the Philippines.

The group may be largely unknown to the general public, but it’s held in high esteem by Ray Flores, executive director of the San Diego Veterans Coalition. The coalition has 150 member groups, including nonprofits, for-profits and government organizations dedicated to veterans services.

Poway Veterans Organization joined the coalition two years ago, after a six-month vetting process that Flores said the group passed with flying colors.

“We know they’re a top-notch and rock-solid organization,” Flores said. “I categorize my members by the amount of time and support they provide to the community. Poway is consistently at the top of that measurement. They’re very active, they’re well known in the veterans community and their credibility is wonderfully high.”

The Poway Veterans Organization was started by retiree Bill McKibbin, 65, of Poway. His father fought in World War II, his uncle served in the Korean War and his brother went to Vietnam. As a teen, McKibbin attended a military high school but went to college on a football scholarship and his draft number was never called.

“I didn’t get to serve when I was young, so I look at what I’m doing right now as my service to the country,” McKibbin said.

About 10 years ago, he began coordinating dinners that raised a couple thousand dollars a year for military service organizations. After about five years, he realized that if he moved the events to a bigger hall he could raise even more money.

He reached out to Poway Elks Lodge officer Dennis Rasmussen, a 26-year Navy veteran, and the first dinner at the lodge raised nearly $20,000 in one night. That led to the creation of the Poway Veterans Organization, with McKibbin as chair, Rasmussen as co-chair, Berger as treasurer and local real estate professional Moon Rash as secretary. The group now has about 15 active members.

Because the Poway Veterans Organization has no office or paid staff, Berger said 97 percent of the money raised goes back into veterans projects.

The organization’s principal fundraiser is an annual golf tournament, organized by board member Nick Yorio. This year’s tournament was held on Monday at the Country Club at Rancho Bernardo. This year’s goal was to net $15,000 at the event.

While it serves veterans countywide, PVO’s specialty is helping elderly Navy and Marine Corps war veterans who’ve retired to Poway, Ramona and surrounding communities.

“We see these people every day. We know them,” Berger said. “When we get a request for assistance, we can’t turn them down.”

McKibbin and Berger met more than 30 years ago when their children played soccer together. Since Berger retired in 2003, he has volunteered full-time for veterans.

Besides the 15 to 25 hours a week he spends on Poway Veterans projects, Berger also spends most mornings driving older veterans to doctor appointments. In 2015, he was named San Diego County Veteran of the Year by the Veterans Museum in Balboa Park.

Poway Veterans’ biggest project coming up is a repair project on the Vista home of 86-year-old Marine veteran Robert Olsen.

Olsen and his family moved into their home off Melrose Drive in 1975, and the house — with two buildings constructed in 1925 and 1943 — is in major need of repairs. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the crew will replace shutters, repaint wood trim, restore the floor in a bathroom, repair concrete at the entryway steps and replace the wiring in an outdoor lamp.

This will be the second time Poway Veterans has helped the Olsen family. Last year, they installed an adaptive shower for Olsen, who lost his right leg in the Korean War. He said he’s deeply grateful for their help.

“I used to do most of these jobs myself, but over the years, it’s been more difficult for me,” he said. “What they’re doing is wonderful. They’re wonderful people.”

Olsen’s son, Jeffrey — who donated $1,000 toward his dad’s home repair project — said it’s not easy for veterans to ask for help because they’re trained to be independent.

“Maybe if more veterans know that groups like this exist, the veterans might be more inclined to ask for help. They do a good service,” Jeffrey said.

Most of the jobs Poway Veterans takes on are referrals from the Veterans Coalition and from 211 San Diego, a free, 24-hour resource hub that connects the public with service organizations.

Steve Alt, veteran and military manager at 211 San Diego, said his experience working with Poway Veterans on projects like Olsen’s shower installation last year has been “outstanding.”

“We call on a lot of groups, that’s our job. Poway Veterans is very good. We can count on them to help out,” Alt said. “When we have veterans calling in with issues of concern, like needing help with construction, we’ll contact them and they’ve come through like champs.”

Veterans can apply for help through 211 San Diego or to PVO directly by filling out an application on its website at powayveterans.org. Berger said each application is reviewed by the board on a case-by-case basis. Veterans from WWII and Korea are given first priority.

“When we see these older folks, their case goes right to the top,” Berger said. “These are the people who really need help more than anyone else. They can’t wait for the work to be done and there’s no way they can generate the funding to get things done.”

But not every request is approved.

“We had people with a $750,000 home asking for a new dishwasher,” Berger said. “What we want are cases of real need, not someone who’s driving a Chevy and wants a Cadillac.”

Source: San Diego Union Tribune

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