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Helping Newark's Homeless Vets

G.I. Go Fund plans to expand to other East Coast cities

The Newark-based G.I. Go Fund, a nonprofit organization providing military veterans assistance in transitioning to civilian life, is being upheld as a 21st century model across the nation.  The establishment’s “Midnight Missions,” whereby volunteers reach out to homeless veteran populations in places like Newark Penn Station and Newark Liberty International Airport in early mornings, will be expanding to Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Baltimore in the coming weeks.

Creating a pilot program in Newark with the intention of expansion had always been the plan for Jack Fanous, the executive director of the G.I. Go Fund,  but when he first teamed up with Mayor Cory Booker in a mission to assist veterans in 2008, Fanous was still uncertain what form this aid would take. 

“We shook Mayor Booker’s hand, we did a nice press conference,” Fanous said, “He gave us an office in city hall and then we weren’t sure what we were going to do with that office.”

Through his desire to help, Fanous quickly learned what works and what doesn’t work in trying to reach veterans.  In his experience, “The number one thing is outreach to the community.”  There are a variety of government services and benefits already in place to assist veterans, but Fanous says that the veterans, generally speaking, will not reach out to request this aid.  Instead, Fanous learned that it is essential to bring the information directly to the veterans themselves. 

“Don’t wait for the veteran back at the office and hope for them to come in.  Just extend your hand and hope they’ll grab it, and help them up,” he said.

Consistent with that philosophy,  the G.I. Go Fund is primarily an outreach organization.  “We are trying to connect veterans with the services and benefits that already exist,” said Fanous.  The federal Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) , for instance, offers veterans a number of services including health benefits, housing help, and career assistance, but their website, with over 80,000 pages, can be difficult for a veteran to navigate effectively on his or her own.  The G.I. Go Fund bridges that gap by helping connect veterans directly with the VA programs or representatives that are best suited to serve their needs.

ABC’s “Secret Millionaire”, a show where millionaires go undercover to find and help deserving charities,  featured the G.I. Go Fund on their June 3 episode.  Successful millionaire artist, Scott Jacobs and his teenage daughter, Alexa volunteered in a “Midnight Mission” and participated in a Homeless Veteran Stand Down, a one-day event which provides veterans basic needs,  such as haircuts, clothing and food, as well as connecting veterans with programs to help them find housing.  Scott and Alexa were so inspired by the organization’s actions that they awarded them a $75,000 donation.

Jack Fanous, grateful for the experience said, “I’m just so proud that this organization that we put together six years ago with no funding – we raised our first hundred dollars selling stick flags at a Rutgers football game – has been recognized not only by Newark but on national television by millions of people.”

 He continues to feel blessed by partners such as Operation Gratitude, a California-based organization, created after the 9-11 attacks whose mission is to raise morale by providing care packages to soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  With soldiers returning home, Operation Gratitude had a surplus of care packages, which are now being redistributed to veterans in Newark through the G.I. Go Fund. 

Newark’s homeless veterans are a diverse group – a recent soldier from Afghanistan could be sharing the same bench at the train station as a Vietnam veteran who has been living there for over 30 years.  

Fanous said he was  profoundly moved when he handed out care packages to veterans only to learn that  “For many of these Vietnam vets, this is the first care package they’ve ever gotten.”

The G.I. Go Fund’s next “Midnight Mission” has not been assigned a specific date as of yet, but will take place in the next couple of weeks.  Volunteers are always encouraged to join or give a donation, which will provide a homeless veteran with a T-shirt or care package.  Click here for details.

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