SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ - It started with a collection to help fund a Memorial Day barbecue at the Valley Brook Village veterans facility in Lyons, NJ. When the bucket collection raised $7,000 at John's Meat Market in downtown Scotch Plains, they decided to keep it going and had barbecues all summer. The program has grown ever since.
Steve Hackenberg, a Scotch Plains native, started the "Buy a Vet..." program first by going to his friends, the Losavio family, the owners of John's Meat Market, which has provided meats for summer barbecues and meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, too. He later approached Rob Watterson at Nick's Pizza & Deli in Fanwood, which led Rocko's Ice Cream, run by Rob's Brother, Brandon Watterson, to join the cause.
"I am a friend to small businesses. I don't walk in and say 'give me.' I say 'Get me the patrons of your businesses'," said Hackenberg, who began this labor of love three years ago. "We take an unconventional approach. All I want is a piece of real estate inside a store. This community has really embraced us."
Hackenberg dedicates his time to helping the residents at Valley Brook. He brings them into the partner establishments, where their meals are paid for from the collection buckets placed in each store.
"Most of the residents at Valley Brook are dealing with some type of issue. Some have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others are recovering addicts," Hackenberg explained. "We have guys who served in the Korean War, who were at the Marine barracks blown up in Lebanon in 1983, and who served in Iraq. These are real American heroes."
The aid Hackenberg provides goes beyond food. The vets are allowed to have one pet dog or cat. He sees that these furry friends have enough food to eat from donations from pet stores. Hackenberg has also provided bicycles for transportation.
"What we can do is only limited by our imagination," Hackenberg explained. "These acts of kindness are felt by these guys. It manifests in their behavior. You can see it."
Ryan Ackerman, a junior at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, volunteers collecting pet food for the residents of Valley Brook. He visits periodically to deliver the food and to visit with the vets and their animals.
The "Buy a Vet..." program has expanded from Scotch Plains and Fanwood, where Hackenberg has many connections, to other towns across Union, Somerset and Middlesex Counties.
American Heroes Smokehouse (formerly Red, White and Cue)
The Bearded Barber
Duke's Pet Den
John's Meat Market
Scotch Plains Rescue Squad
Super Heroes ("Buy a hero, a hero.")
Berkeley Heights Animal Hospital
Pet Supplies Plus
Cioffi's Italian Deli
Two Fish and Five Loaves Soul Food
Veneto's Italian Cucina
Next year, construction will begin on Valley Brook II, which will have 52 new units for veterans. Hackenberg views the development as an opportunity to help more people.
"Our customers are so generous; I can't believe it," exclaimed Vinnie Losavio of John's Meat Market. "We're going to keep doing this."
To get involved in the program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Steve Hackenberg at (908) 723-0788.