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

June 2000/July 2000

Chapter 77: Committed, Strong, And Active

By Jim Doyle

It began simply enough. In 1984 a member of Chapter 77 in Buffalo, New York, approached the chapter and spoke about a veteran who needed help. He had lost his job, had no money, and had an infant at home. He was desperate.

The chapter passed the hat and collected $46. The member went out and purchased groceries with the money and delivered them to the family. The reception he received was heartfelt and genuine.

He went back and reported to the members of the chapter, and they decided to begin a monthly 50/50 drawing to establish a fund to help veterans in need. Thus began the Chapter 77 Food Pantry that has helped countless veterans and their families in the last 16 years.

"Over the years we have helped veterans of all wars and active-duty families in need," said Frank Vollmer, founding president of the chapter. "We've helped veterans and families from World War II all the way through Kosovo."

In a community with a population hovering around 500,000, VVA Chapter 77 is always ready, willing, and able to help out. Much of the success of the Food Pantry program is due to the efforts of Paul Rudnicki.

Since 1986 he has sponsored an annual Welcome Back Ball at the local fire hall. The proceeds go directly to the chapter's pantry project. It is estimated that in the last 14 years the parties have raised over $100,000 for the pantry.

At first, Rudnicki's friends in the legal profession never thought he could get a group of Vietnam veterans together in one place long enough to raise any money. "I bet them a dollar a head they were wrong," he said.

Vollmer added that when the challenge came, the chapter went out and recruited, cajoled, and persuaded veterans to show up for the event. Prizes were donated by local merchants and others for a silent auction.

"Eighty people showed up that first year," he says. "It raised $1,800 for the pantry."

Initially, the chapter also received donations from other VSOs in town. "The program is unrestricted," Vollmer says. "If you're a vet or a family member and need some assistance, we'll be there."

In 1999, the Welcome Home Ball grossed $15,400. After expenses, the pantry received $14,900. It is now an annual project of Veterans Assistance Local Ongoing Recognition (VALOR), established by Rudnicki and six friends. He is proud that the group keeps expenses low.

"The community responds when you show them that over 96 cents of every dollar goes to the program," Rudnicki says. "A lot of our money comes from people who don't attend the party."

That the ball is more than a culinary experience is evidenced by the ticket for the 15th annual event scheduled for November 20: "Fabulous Midnight Buffet--Spam, Spam, & More Spam." The same ticket advertises "Free Rooftop Parking for First Ten Helicopters."

"We try not to take ourselves too seriously," said Rudnicki, who saw service in Vietnam with the Judge Advocate General Corps from Camp Holloway in the Central Highlands to Can Tho in the Delta.

Admission is $25 per couple and a can of food. Some people bring boxes and bags of canned goods to help fill the shelves of the pantry. Occasionally, a donor will remark, "You helped me out, and I never forgot."

The chapter is more than just the Food Pantry. It is people who have more in common than the Vietnam War or living on the banks of the Niagara River. They share a sense of community.

"It's a great bunch of people," Al Schreier, past chapter president, said. "It's a nice bunch to hang out with."

Mary Lee Sulkowski, team leader at the Buffalo Vet Center, agrees. "Chapter 77 has always made a point of welcoming women veterans into their ranks," she said. "When I was state coordinator for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, the chapter raised close to $2,000 for the memorial." Sulkowski served aboard the USS Repose in I Corps as a surgical nurse during the Vietnam War.

On the last Tuesday of each February, "Kids Day," chapter members volunteer to sell special editions of the Buffalo News to raise money for children. "Our volunteers stand on the corner of Niagara and Porter and sell the paper for one dollar," said Chapter President Al Brusetti. "This year we collected nearly $500."

Brusetti joined Chapter 77 in the early 1980s because, he said, "the VFW post I was in had only one other Vietnam veteran. They just weren't active in Vietnam veterans issues."

The commitment to children extends to the chapter Speakers Bureau and the presentations it makes on the Vietnam War to students from grade school to college.

"We have a full collection of military memorabilia," said Schreier. "We present a slide show and then haul out the flak vests, helmets, M-60 machine gun mock-up, and Ho Chi Minh sandals." The presentation also includes a photo display.

"You should see these kids when we put the flak vest on them," he laughed. "They just kind of shrivel into the ground. Then we put the steel pot on their heads, and they get an idea of what it's like to carry that weight."

Because Christmas can be a lonely time for servicemen and women stationed around the world, Chapter 77 created Operation Gift Lift five years ago. The chapter solicits donations from local merchants and makes goody bags: tooth brushes and toothpaste, shampoo, soap, playing cards, games, and candy. The bags are shipped to troops serving overseas.

Even though the chapter sponsors the activity, it is Denner and Norah Astyk who devote the time, energy, and space to make it successful. Operation Gift Lift takes up a lot of their home every Christmas: most of the basement and spreading into the kitchen and dining room when the packing starts.

Norah Astyk is a teacher; she has her young students make hand-drawn Christmas greeting cards that are included in the packages.

In early November each year, volunteers swarm through the Astyk home and assemble the gift bags, pack them in cartons, and take them to UPS for transport to the Army Depot in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

From there, the Army ships them to American servicemen and women around the world. Up to 300 bags are sent out each November; they reach troops in time for Christmas.

The chapter is an active participant in Buffalo’s Inner Harbor Development project, which will expand the Buffalo Naval Museum by a third and develop the Walk Of Heroes--a quiet, contemplative area adjacent to the Inner Harbor.

"We were full participants with the landscape architects and engineers," Brusetti said. "They wanted Vietnam veterans to be involved in the design process."

The terminus of the Erie Canal is on the Niagara River and each year the chapter sets up a booth during Canal Fest, a community fair that features ethnic foods, carnival rides, crafts, and the "If It Floats It's A Boat Race."

The chapter answers questions about Vietnam, benefits and services available, and about VVA. Because some veterans never attend veteran functions but will come to community activities, Chapter 77 uses that face-to-face exchange to recruit them into the veterans community.

The chapter remembers those still missing with an annual program at the Batavia VA Medical Center. This commitment grew from the chapter's affiliation with the late Eva Rozo, a Gold Star Mother whose son SFC James Milan Rozo has been listed as missing since June 23, 1970.

The chapter is also very active in legislative lobbying efforts in New York. It takes pride in being part of the group that forced the state legislature to enact the Veterans Buy Back provision in the state pension system. Government employees who are military veterans are able to "buy back" up to three years of their military service to be counted in the calculation for a pension when they retire from jobs with the state or local governments.

Al Schreier is chair of the annual Golf Tournament that raises money for the chapter’s general fund. "We had 112 golfers this year," he said. "It's a lot of fun. We started out six years ago with 55 golfers. It has become so successful that we have had to start turning people away."

The group is especially proud of its color guard, which takes part in dozens of community events each year, from parades to memorial services. From time to time they are called upon to present the colors at the funerals of local veterans.

But Chapter 77 members think of themselves as more than a veteran's organization.

"We are a community resource," Schreier said proudly. "We work on veterans issues, but we focus on the entire community. Wherever we go, whatever we do increases the public awareness of who we are."

"There isn't a single person involved in politics in the Buffalo area who doesn't know who we are," echoes Brusetti. "I'm proud to serve as a member of Vietnam Veterans of America in Buffalo and Erie County. We are a great plus for the area."

"Our people are the basis for our success," Schreier said. "You don't need to be an officer or a board member, you just do what you can. We look forward to hosting VVA members at the Leadership Conference. Welcome to Buffalo."


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