By Dennis Hohenberger | Special to The Republican
Published: Sep. 25, 2022, 10:40 a.m.
Gina Nelson was raised in a military family, the daughter of an Air Force B-52 bomber pilot, Lt. Col. Frederick Sabbs.
Her father was flying missions at the height of the Vietnam War. His service is what brought her family to Western Massachusetts as he was stationed at Westover Air Force Base. She knows the pride and fear that comes with a loved one serving in the military in wartime.
Seven years ago, Nelson founded the free weekly veterans lunch program that’s offered each Thursday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Appleton Street. Each gathering is intended to fill the belly and nourish the soul of every veteran who comes through the door.
Nelson and dozens of volunteers, along with veterans and their family members, celebrated the program’s anniversary on Thursday with a catered lunch by Hamel’s sponsored by PeoplesBank. They were joined by members of veterans groups and organizations who often attend to support service members and give help when needed.
Even with a two-year gap caused by COVID-19, Nelson and her crew did meals-to-go, a delicious version of MREs (meals ready to eat) or delivered to homebound veterans.
Nelson is the program’s central figure, offering every diner a hug and smile, in essence a long-deserved welcome home.
“The meal is the jump-off point because as soon as they start to feel relaxed, they let us in on their lives and their needs,” Nelson said of her diners. “Then we go to the next level. We’re not clinicians, and we don’t pretend to be. But we partner with people who have those skills.”
Representatives from Holyoke’s Veterans Services Office, along with Veterans Inc. and other nonprofits, are frequent diners. Nelson gently prods veterans who may be unaware of available benefits or programs to interact with them. Her soothing, friendly tone is aimed at breaking down emotional barriers, Nelson said.
“We had people go straight from lunch and direct them into programs that can help them,” she said. “There’s a lot of different issues as there are in society. This is a microcosm of society. One of our goals is to lessen the divide between the vets and the community.”
Nelson also changed the way the room was configured. She felt guests were forced to talk to each other by sitting side-by-side; now, she notices how the veterans move table to table, an unforced, natural networking.
One week, Nelson put out a world map with a box of pins and asked the simple question, “Where did you serve?” Pins started to appear all over the map. Soon, the conversations flowed, and common bonds formed.
“We have people in the room who seamlessly walked back into their lives after coming home. We also have people who are suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, (post-traumatic stress disorder) and all of this stuff. But everyone seems to find something in this room,” she said.
Nelson recalled one man who, since passed, wouldn’t venture past the lobby outside the auditorium where the lunches are held. The veteran felt he “wasn’t clean enough” to enter the hall. Nelson offered him a takeout meal, which he accepted.
The following week, Nelson invited the man to eat his lunch in the parish library, away from the hubbub. The process continued for weeks until Nelson cracked the library’s door open. Then, one week, Nelson “accidentally” lost the keys to the library.
She offered the man a table by himself in the main room. Fellow diners began introducing themselves to the reluctant diner.
The vet eventually cleaned himself up, got a job and a new apartment, and reengaged with the community, according to Nelson. “It was such a wonderful thing. He went from barely looking me in the eyes to not letting go of me, hugging,” she said.
Marc Bourgeois, who served in the Army and Air Force for 27 years, heard about the lunch program from a newspaper article. He had known Nelson from his time with the security forces at Westover.
Bourgeois began attending the Thursday lunch with his father-in-law, a Navy veteran. He hasn’t stopped since.
“They treat us with such courtesy, such respect. They’re very welcoming when you come through the door. The volunteers are amazing,” Bourgeois said. “I get to meet with vets I served with and vets I knew from the community.”
Bourgeois said veterans miss the sense of community, one that gets smaller by the year. Reconnecting with veterans after leaving the military remains a difficult task for veterans who can feel isolated.
“It’s probably the biggest issue veterans have, the transformation from military to civilian life. They don’t feel connected anymore. They can’t connect with a lot of the civilian ways of life,” he said. “I feel that most days.”
The lunch reignited that “special bond” for Bourgeois, who enjoys talking with older veterans. “Every once in a while, I get lucky, and there’s a World War II vet,” he said. “Being able to see a World War II vet, I can’t explain it.”
Bourgeois promotes the weekly lunch in the community. Friend and veteran Jordan Lemieux joined him.
Christian DiLuzio, of Veterans Inc., said, “It’s a bright light in the city of Holyoke for the veteran community. Over the last few years, so many veterans have self-sheltered. Having an opportunity to be out in public with other veterans is a bound beyond words.”
DiLuzio credits Nelson’s connection with service providers as a major benefit. “This isn’t just a free lunch. This is an opportunity for veterans to come and learn about different services in Western Massachusetts,” he said.
State Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, a member of the Army Reserve, was in attendance this week and is a regular volunteer at the lunches. He said the program gives veterans like himself a chance for some “hot chow,” to share stories and catch up with one another.
“My experience and every veteran’s experiences are different,” Velis said. “Veterans tend to let their guard down around other veterans. We have places like this that lend themselves to breaking bread, sitting and talking to each other. It’s a very friendly, free-flowing, no judgment zone.”
A warm meal awaits anyone who walks through the door, Nelson said.
“But if you hunger for something more than a meal, for camaraderie, if you hunger being around people you don’t have to explain things to because you have a shared experience, there’s a place for you here as well,” she added.
The Veterans Lunch operates every Thursday from noon to 1:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church, 485 Appleton St. For more information, email Nelson at email@example.com.