Runners and walkers started off the Independence Day weekend with a 5K run or 3K walk through McNary Estates at the VetsFest 5K on Saturday, July 2.
VetsFest was organized by Help Oregon Veterans, a non-profit company that aids veterans in finding emergency shelter.
“I think everybody that’s driven through downtown Salem has seen these poor guys sleeping in the gutters,” Help Oregon Veterans Director Robert Wood said. “Everybody’s kind of saying ‘how can we help this?’”
Wood seems to be right, it’s a cause that many flock to. The top women’s finisher at VetsFest, Keizer resident Kristin Barber, works for Northwest Human Services who offers medical, dental and mental health services, turning away no one for inability to pay, and aids homeless youth and adults.
“It’s hard for me to see our veterans on street corners, not having housing,” Barber said. “It’s a problem everywhere in our country, even more so for veterans. When I run I always try to run for something.”
For Wood, the cause has a personal feel.
Wood served four years in the Navy as an air traffic controller, and was part of the evacuation of Saigon that has been immortalized in time with the photo of troops climbing to the top of the embassy to board the waiting helicopter. Wood was the one communicating with the pilots of the helicopter at the time.
“It’s always bothered me that we brought these men back and kind of said ‘well, we know we broke you, now you’re on your own,’” Wood said.
Wood and Help Oregon Veterans have big goals in how to help homeless veterans.
There are plans for building and maintaining what Wood referred to as an “indoor tent city” with showers, bathrooms and storage. Wood said they will allow veterans to return and continue to use the services for as long as needed.
“It’s the fundamental humanity of allowing people to sleep on sidewalks that bothers us,” Wood said. “We don’t think we’ll be able to change lives right away, we just want to get them out of the gutter.”
The money earned from VetsFest goes towards the building fund for the tent city, which is still in the initial planning and fundraising stages before a location will be chosen.
This was the second year for VetsFest, and the event has grown exponentially. Last year, there were four participants and around 20 volunteers. This year, 20 runners and 19 walkers, ages 5-72, were out at McNary Saturday morning. And Wood estimates at least one volunteer for every participant.
“This is enormously successful,” Wood said. “People really seem to like not only contributing to the nonprofit, but as a very collegial activity. When you’re done, everybody knows everybody, it’s a great feeling.”
The top finisher for the event was Chris Poole of Newberg with a time of 17 minutes, 49 seconds. Poole ran track in high school at Blanchet Catholic School, and currently coaches cross country at Sherwood High School.
“Just a good way to stay fit and keep up with the kids in practice,” Poole said.