By Nicolas Pennisi and Rosemary An
You start off by browning onions in a pan with oil. Add chopped meat, tomatoes, beans, spices and let them sizzle in a pot for hours. The thick, warm, red treat is a fall favorite, especially for Long Islanders in Ronkonkoma. For the 8th year in a row, The Association for Mental Health and Wellness’ Annual Chili Cook-Off brought hundreds of members of the community together to support one cause—veterans in need.
The Chili Cook-Off is one of two major fundraising efforts the nonprofit puts on every year. This past Saturday, Oct. 20, the event raised approximately $15,000. The proceeds help Suffolk County United Veterans, a branch of the association, fund their housing programs, provide substance abuse care and help counsel at-risk and homeless veterans.
According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are nearly 1300 homeless veterans in New York state. Despite rising levels of general homelessness, rates of homeless veterans are decreasing. Vice President of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness Tom McOlvin feels that the local efforts of organizations like Suffolk County United Veterans contribute to this decline.
“Suffolk County United Veterans and other similar organizations pulled together to try and provide more emergency services to get people off the streets and into different housing options,” McOlvin said.
Their facility, located in Yaphank, is home to more veterans than any other county in New York. The shelter has 23 bed spaces for emergency or transitional housing, all of which are filled. For those in need of permanent housing, their program has 7 homes, which house a total of 35 veterans.
Back at the cook-off, Suffolk County United Veterans, along with 17 other teams, prepared their own recipe to compete for three different levels of distinction—Local, Professional and People’s Choice. A 50/50 split between meat and vegan categories gave six teams the opportunity to claim titles.
Creatures’ Comfort, one of the nine vegan teams, competed for their third year. Owner Susan Shilling prepares her “no harm chili” with peppers, corn, a variety of beans, and vegan meat crumbles. Shilling says attendees, even those who eat meat, gave a positive response.
Families enjoyed live musical performances from local groups such as the Sweet Adelines and the Selden Cadets. Children were able to decorate pumpkins, while parents perused local vendors’ tables. Attendees were able to purchase raffle tickets for a chance to win one of dozens of gift baskets.
The event was more than just a fundraiser; it was about comradery. Veterans had the opportunity to connect and feel celebrated by each other. Veterans like John Sharp, a 74-year-old who served in Vietnam, feels events like these are all too rare.
“People take veterans for granted [in the United States],” Sharp said.
When Sharp returned from war in 1969, people spit on him and called him a “baby killer.” He is among the 9.2 million Americans who served during the Vietnam war. A lot has changed since then in Sharp’s eyes.
“They take care of us finance wise, and have a home to put us in. A lot of other organizations don’t have that,” Sharp said.
Suffolk County United Veterans launched the Dwyer Project in 2012 to help veterans suffering with Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The psychiatric disorder can occur when individuals experience or witness a traumatic event. The project is a peer-to-peer program where veterans help other veterans cope with their trauma.
“This is a different war, than previous wars,” Army veteran Wilkens Young said, referring to his own battle with mental health. “Different wars come with different battle wounds; some are physical, some are mental.”
Young is among the one-third of Vietnam-era veterans who experience Post-traumatic stress disorder.
He was stationed in Berlin, Germany during the peacetime after the Vietnam War from 1976 to 1978. During his service, he was locked in a military vehicle when it caught on fire, trapping him inside—the aftermath still affects him.
He came to Suffolk County United Veterans in 2000 looking for a home. Now he’s the director of the organization.
“When [veterans] actually see the turn out, and that people come out and [support them] just because they are a veteran, it has the tendency to give them the courage and the strength that they need to go forward,” Young said.