Clothing goes to disaster relief

A Disabled American Veterans clothing collection bin stands along Lake Avenue in Fairmont, across from the Martin County Courthouse.

FAIRMONT — Our area offers numerous charitable endeavors that gratefully accept our donations of money, volunteer time and goods. The Disabled American Veterans Chapter 32 is one such organization whose philanthropic mission serves double duty by providing clothing to those in need and supporting area veterans.

Mike Chepa of Lakefield, who recently assumed the role of commander of the DAV chapter from Gary Reutzel of Fairmont, spends one or two days a week collecting clothing that has been deposited in the bright green bins stationed in various communities.

“We started about four years ago with two boxes. Now we have about 20,” Chepa said.

The DAV chapter encompasses five counties: Martin, Rock, Nobles, Jackson and Faribault. Collection bins are located in Fairmont, Truman, Sherburn, Winnebago, Blue Earth, Jackson Windom and Lakefield. Bins in Fairmont are located across the street from the Martin County Court House, at Five Lakes Center and by the fire hall.

Chepa handles the collections from the western portion of the area with other volunteers handling the east side collections. Earlier this week, he spent six hours traveling around to pick up donations from 10 bins.

Previously, donations went to a thrift store in Sioux Falls for resale, but the DAV Chapter recently started with a new program where clothing is sent to areas hit by natural disasters such as flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes.

“The clothes are going to those places. Everything is going to be used for relief efforts,” Chepa said. “They pay us by the pound, and all that money stays in our five-county area to help veterans.”

Chepa stressed that only “soft goods” should be deposited in the collection bins. All types and sizes of clothing, purses, belts, shoes, coats and good bedding are needed. Donations should be clean and usable.

“Please bag it and tie it,” he said. “If there is something in the bin that is not bagged, if it rains, everything gets soaked.”

When Chepa collected clothing from the bins on Tuesday, the rain that morning saturated all the items that were not bagged. He strung 100 feet of clothes line in his yard and garage so he could hang the clothes to dry.

“That all takes extra work,” he said.

Another problem occurs when people put breakable items in the bins.

“We don’t accept ‘hard’ stuff so please, no toys, books, pots and pans, knickknacks or pictures. None of that stuff,” Chepa said. “Last week, I don’t know how they got it in there, but there was a big toaster oven in one of the bins. It hit the bottom, and of course, busted the glass out of it so it was useless.”

There are other charitable organizations that would gladly accept the “hard goods,” he said.

Occasionally, Chepa will find a bag of household garbage someone has thrown into the DAV collection bins, and there has been unusable clothing covered in mud, paint or smelling of gasoline.

“But, most generally, everybody is pretty good. There are a lot of good people out there,” Chepa said.

The DAV uses the money it receives from the sale of the clothing to help area veterans.

“All the money stays in our area to help our veterans,” Chepa said. “We help homeless veterans. At Christmas, we give all the veterans in skilled nursing homes a small check so they can spend a little money on themselves if they want to.”

Funds are used to improve the lives of residents at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne. The DAV Chapter helps provide cable television at the facility and for food and veterinary bills for the therapy animals there. The chapter helps with the annual venison and pheasant feed as well as paying for as many hunting and fishing outings as possible.

“These guys, some them are suicidal,” Chepa said, noting that many have lost one or more limbs. “We can take them out hunting or fishing, and they can actually do something. It shows them that they are still worthwhile. I really helps turn a lot of them around.”

By working with Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, the families of military personnel that currently are serving also receive support from the DAV.

“We don’t just give them money, but if something happens, like their furnace breaks down, we will go in and pay to get it fixed,” Chepa said.