Veterans helping veterans

Ann Gill

It’s become tradition for veterans from across Illinois to gather in Coal City each September. Unfortunately this year’s gathering to recognize military service men and women was postponed.
Operation Firm Handshake was set to host its 8th annual Illinois Veterans Picnic on Sept. 12, but with the on-going pandemic, organizers decided it was in the best interest of attendees to put a temporary hold on the popular picnic.
As an organization whose mission is helping veterans, the group didn’t want the pandemic to get in the way of doing something special to recognize the dedicated service of the nation’s military veterans.
The group teamed up with the director of volunteers at the Manteno Veterans Home and LaSalle Veterans Home to provide care packages for the men and women residing at the two facilities.
The veteran’s group obtained hygiene kits that included essential personal care items like a toothbrush and comb through the United Methodist Church’s Global Ministries Program.
Veteran volunteers also packed a T-shirt, candy bar and items like batteries into clear plastic shoe boxes.
The packing took place last week as several veterans gathered together to complete the task in advance of a weekend delivery to coincide with the scheduled date of the annual picnic.
Founding member Max Valdez reports the effort assisted 289 veterans—150 at Manteno and 139 at LaSalle.
Operation Firm Handshake also provided everything needed for an old fashion ice cream social.
Marine Corps veteran and volunteer Scotty Sines worked with the volunteer director at LaSalle on the ice cream social and he reports the veterans were treated to various flavors of ice cream and toppings.
The added treat was just one way the veterans of Operation Firm Handshake are helping fellow veterans.
Valdez and his friend, Joe Guereca were having a conversation at the Coal City Area Club several years ago when the idea of a veterans picnic was first mentioned. The two followed through with the idea, brought a few others on board and grew into a highly popular event attracting hundreds to the recreation club each fall.
It was also through that discussion that Operation Firm Handshake was formed to organize and execute the annual picnic, while also providing an outlet for veterans to come together to support one another through community service and camaraderie as evidenced with the group who gathered to pack up the veteran care packages.
Valdez reports the pandemic postponement was done with the health and safety of veterans in mind, and the picnic will be back in 2021. In fact, the planning has already begun.