A Vietnam veteran from Santa Rosa has made it his mission to make sure unhoused veterans are not forgotten.
Joe Cholewa has put boots on the ground in a mission of love. He leads a coalition called Sonoma County Veterans Outreach
"I always think if it's not fun anymore, why am I doing it?" he asked.
Cholewa's group opens a door of hope for the homeless, especially military veterans. The volunteer coalition includes the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 78, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Chapter 3237, and Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 223.
At its Santa Rosa warehouse, the outreach group collects and gives away food bank donations and other basic items like sleeping bags, boots, quilts, toiletries and flashlights
The volunteers began serving thousands of people who lost their homes in the 2017 Tubbs wildfire. The group morphed into its current program which serves about 300 people a month.
"Everybody's human," Cholewa said. "They all deserve a hand up instead of a handout."
Cholewa has survived cancer several times and other ailments he attributes to Agent Orange and his service in Vietnam. But the 77-year-old feels he's got a good life, and he finds healing by helping those hurting from the wounds of war.
"Post-traumatic stress - the best therapy I've ever had - going out and trying to help people," he said. "Better than anything - counseling, individuals. Just gives a good feeling."
It takes several volunteers to deliver donations, and Cholewa drives up to 250 miles a week taking them to homeless camps and housing outreach groups in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties.
For gas money, the group relies on donations and turns in recycling for cash.
Alan Duncan, an 80-year-old Vietnam vet, is among Cholewa's core group of about a dozen volunteers.
"He's got a great heart," Duncan said.
Duncan added that the volunteers deal with their own set of medical challenges, but he says Cholewa keeps them motivated in supporting veterans in need.
"We'd like them to know we're there to help, someone's there to help, that they're not alone in this world," Duncan said.
"We don't do it for glory," Cholewa chimed in. "It's just something we feel needs to be done."
So for leading a compassionate coalition that serves homeless veterans, this week's Jefferson Award winner in the Bay Area goes to Joe Cholewa.
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