ALBANY — Melody stands with Oscar in front of a rack of pants and belts inside the Veterans Miracle Center’s storefront.
Melody is Melody Burns, VMC operations director, and Oscar is one of the more than 5,000 U.S. veterans she and her staff have helped since the center opened three years ago.
The VMC center knows every veteran the staff has helped, along with every item taken from its storefront. Each transaction is recorded; every soldier has a file. Burns said it’s what helps the not for profit anticipate demand. For every Oscar, there is a file that includes what he takes home, including the waist size of each pair of pants. For when he returns, if he returns, the center knows to have a few pairs of size 28 pants in stock.
There are approximately 50 people who volunteer at the VMC center. That doesn’t include the tight network of schools, shelters and service recruiters who will funnel veterans to the center from as far away as New Jersey and Plattsburgh. “We don’t like to have people work alongside of us until they see what we do,” said Jim Pratt, the general manager of the VMC center. “They see what we do, and it really sets the stage going forward.”
A few feet away from the ball caps and t-shirts representing each branch of the U.S. armed forces is a display of diapers, bottles and baby wipes. Not everyone the center helps is a veteran. The spouses of soldiers deployed overseas are eligible for help. With boxes of diapers priced as high as $40 each, they need it.
The center knows who its helped, and how many, but Burns said it’s impossible to know who among upstate New York’s veterans are not receiving the help they need. The center’s warehouse is tucked a quarter-mile off Albany’s Central Avenue, on a meandering Interstate Avenue. Outside of a modest sign affixed upon the building’s brick facade, a motorist could drive by it.
The signage isn’t at fault. Men and women trained to survive and perform outside the convenient confines of an urban environment, can often be unwilling to admit the need for help.
“It’s difficult, because a lot of them are very proud,” said Burns. “They don’t want to ask for help.” Burns has seen so many different scenarios from those vets who come through the door. The soldier who returns home to a wife and kid who’s surprised by divorce papers. The career serviceman whose food, clothing and shelter was all provided for during his entire adult life. “Some of them are so overwhelmed, they don’t know what they’re going to need. We do.”
Gary Weinlein is a paramour of music, especially that of the rock and roll that defined the 60s and 70s. He “blames” his older brother Gregg. Tongue in cheek, he also describes being “dragged” to shows at the Aerodrome, University at Albany and Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and more. Today, Gary brings those shows back to life. Each year, he brings his Groovin’ shows to the Capital District, showcasing local musicians acting and singing like Jim Morrison and Grace Slick for audiences. He digs it, too.
From the Albany State gym, “I sat five feet away from these people,” said Weinlein. “It was very influential on my music appreciation, and I can’t seem to break loose from it.”
Each year, proceeds from Weinlein’s Groovin’ shows goes to a different cause. Each of those causes share a common thread; to honor U.S. war veterans. Proceeds from the Groovin’: Ghostly Legends and Friends at the Palace Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 28 goes to the VMC center.
“A lot of people who I know that are veterans utilize what the Veterans Miracle Center gives,” said Weinlein. “And, for the veteran in need, to have at no cost necessities for living, whether they’re in bad health or down and out at the time being… the Veteran’s Center provides a gauntlet of products.
With the amount Weinlein anticipates to earn through this month’s show, Burns measures the impact through the number of beds. Quote on need for beds. Burns said the show “could put 50 vets into a bed.”
For more information on the VMC center, visit www.vmcalbany.org. For tickets and information about the upcoming Groovin’ concert, visit ticketmaster.com or call the Palace Box Office at (518) 465-4663.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.