A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June 2000/July 2000

AVVA at Buffalo: A Tradition of Friendship

By Jim Belshaw

Continuing a tradition begun five years ago at the National Convention in Houston, the Associates of the Vietnam Veterans of America (AVVA) will reach out to those in need through Project Friendship at the August 2-6 Leadership Conference in Buffalo.

As they have done in the past, the Associates this year will work closely with VVA in a cooperative effort, bringing a hands-on approach to a Buffalo homeless shelter.

The project takes on added meaning for AVVA this year. Citing a 1999 Internal Revenue Serviceruling that required the associates to split from VVA and form a separate organization, AVVA President Nancy Switzer said the associates hope the project serves as an important reminder of the close ties between VVA and the associates.

"We've tried to stay together as a family unit with VVA,'' she said. "You're always giving back something of yourself in these kinds of things. It's something that comes from the heartand I've noticed from the beginning that veterans and their families have that heart.''

Project Friendship began in 1995 when several AVVA members began casting about for a service activity that could be approached on a VVA national level. Tying in the project with the Veterans Initiative, the AVVA collected school supplies and educational toys for Vietnamese children from chapters nationwide. Veterans Initiative delegation members distributed the donated items on subsequent trips to Vietnam.

At the 1996 Louisville Leadership Conference, Project Friendship collected nearly $10,000 in school supplies and $3,000 in cash to help schools and libraries damaged by flooding in three states.

In Anaheim last year, the AVVA collected donations for the homeless and for the Kenny Nickelson Foundation. 

"Since we began, some states have started their own Project Friendship programs,'' Switzer said. "In Texas they call it the Amigo Program. They work with homeless shelters. You'd be surprised at how enthusiastic people become when they are involved in these kinds of things. Expanding Project Friendship into other states is mostly just a matter of educating the associates and continuing to work with VVA.''

At the August Leadership Conference in Buffalo, AVVA and VVA officers will feed the homeless at the Buffalo City Mission, a shelter long involved in community affairs. AVVA also is asking VVA chapters to bring needed items to Buffalo to be donated to the homeless shelter.

"They need infant formula, diapers, toothbrushes, strollers, high chairs, baby walkers, tee-shirts, underwear, soap, shampoo, and other hygiene items,'' Switzer said. "They are in dire need of the tee-shirts and underwear.''

Founded 81 years ago by the evangelist Billy Sunday, the Buffalo homeless shelter provides services for up to 168 men and approximately 100 women and children at its family facility, The Cornerstone Manor.

"The mission has been serving the Buffalo area continuously since its founding,'' chaplain Richard Clark said. "As it grew, we started doing outreach into the community itself. We work with shut-ins, and families, and we do a lot of community-action work. In-house we have a GED program, veterans programs, mental-health programs, and job training. We see a lot of veterans and on average they're mostly Vietnam vets, but I've seen everything from men who dropped out of boot camp, to men who go as far back as the Korean War.''

AVVA President Switzer, whose husband lost a leg below the knee when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam, has been involved in veterans affairs since 1981. She believes Project Friendship lends itself well to the Vietnam experience.

"I think with veterans as a whole--and maybe Vietnam veterans in particular--the war experience stayed with them when they came home,'' she said. "They know what it's like to do without basic things the rest of us take for granted. They know what it's like to go days without sleep. They know what it's like to go days without taking a shower or being able to change into clean clothes. They know how disadvantaged people feel.''

Switzer said that AVVA has some 5,000 active members, and prior to a current renewal review, the number stood at about 7,500.

At the Buffalo Leadership Conference, AVVA will hold its first biennial convention, its first since being formally split from VVA.

"When we're working at the shelter on Tuesday [August 1], and feeding the shelter's clients, it's going to be the VVA officers and AVVA officers working together on a project,'' Switzer said. "This is the first time the VVA board will be doing something like this, and it's exciting because it will set a precedent. VVA and AVVA were a family before the split and we're still a family.''


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