Gillette Teen Hosts Fundraiser to Help Local Veterans
Tori Beck is not your average 14 year old. In fact, she sounds more like a Fortune 500 CEO as she rattled off her teeming list of activities for the day. After a quick stop at The Local for coffee with her mom and younger brother, she’ll be making the rounds to area businesses to collect auction items for her upcoming fundraiser to help local veterans. Then there’s homework, chores, drama club, and a laundry list of other activities still to squeeze in before bedtime.
For now, she’s eager to sit back for a few minutes with a warm drink and talk about her love and respect for veterans, beginning with her grandpa Larry Hansen, a Vietnam vet with a Purple Heart, whose stories of war have left a lasting impression. Some of the stories are kinda gross, she admitted. Like the maggots he extracted from underneath his full body cast as he laid in a field hospital recuperating from gunshot wounds and shrapnel.
She made a face as she described the handful of squirming white bugs he pulled out from underneath the plaster. Instead of remaining in the hospital to have the cast re-set and de-bugged, he chose to instead fly home with maggots in tow, so he could get back to see his family that much faster.
“Can you believe that?” she said with a toothy smile. “He cared more about seeing his family than having maggots crawling all over his skin.”
That says a lot about a person, she noted, and it also makes her proud of her grandpa and other veterans.
“They sacrificed so much for us,” she said, and it bothers her to think of her grandpa coming home and being spit on by anti-war protesters. “I never want any veteran to feel unappreciated or forgotten.”
She also likes to hear about the letters that the soldiers wrote to their girlfriends and wives back home. Now, that’s romantic, she said, adding that she thinks she might have been born in the wrong century.
“Love is not nearly as romantic now in the age of social media,” she said with a smile. “I might have a problem with that down the road.”
For now, however, she’s content to channel all her emotions into her upcoming dinner and fundraiser to honor veterans on Feb. 29. This will be her second year organizing the event. Last year, she facilitated the fundraiser as part of her community service work for her after-school club, Family, Career, Community, Leaders of America (FCCLA). She’s one of four Campbell County teens who are members, with the primary mission of doing service work to better the community.
Initially, she’d planned to raise money for a national veteran’s charity until she found out how that money is disbursed.
“Did you know that like 60% goes to the CEO and people at the top?” she said, shaking her head in disbelief as she swished her dark blonde ponytail over her shoulder. “I couldn’t believe that and wanted to do something to help local veterans in the community.”
After her revelation about the less than altruistic machinations of national charities, she tracked down Gillette College Veterans Advisor Brian Yeager for ideas, who directed her to Jerry Walters and Buddy Langone at the American Legion Post 42, who helped her get the ball rolling.
Initially, when Langone asked her how much money she hoped to raise, she thought between $2,000 – $3,000 sounded pretty good. Langone, however, had much higher aspirations.
“He said it was going to be much bigger than that,” she said, “and thought we should aim for $10,000.”
The pair teamed up to tackle the mounting tasks at hand, with Langone offering to chauffer her throughout the county to solicit auction items from more than 100 local restaurants and businesses.
“I joked that he was my personal Uber driver,” she said with a laugh.
In the end, they raised over their target amount, which they between the American Legion Post, VWF, and the Veterans’ Home of Buffalo.
She’s not sure what all they did with the money, but was happy to learn that some of the proceeds went to purchasing a plane ticket for a local veteran s0 he could fly home to see his dying mother while other funds were used to help veterans cover medical and other expenses.
It felt good to be able to do something to directly help veterans locally, she said, as a means of thanking them for their sacrifice and service. And though raising money was nice, it wasn’t the dollar amount as much as the connections and friendships she made along the way. Being able to hang out with veterans and hear their stories was life altering for her in many ways. These guys have a lot of important lessons to teach us, she noted, and she was paying attention.
She particularly enjoyed her visits to the Veterans’ Home in Buffalo, where the guys “kicked her butt” at Uno and other card games and taught her a thing or two about kindness and grace. She’ll never forget the day that a color-blind veteran asked to join their card game, but after seeing what they were playing, decided to opt out because he wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the various colors. Nonsense, one of the guys at the table had said, insisting the man sit down and join their game where he proceeded to help him navigate his hand, all the while having fun and making him feel welcome.
“Their kindness made a big impression on me,” she said. “I still think about it.”
These are just a few of the invaluable lessons she’s learned through her friendships with these local heroes. Perhaps the most meaningful experience yet was when her grandpa pulled her aside to tell her how proud he was of her. It was the best compliment she thinks she’s ever received, she said, as she reflectively stared at her cup. Those words meant even more to her than winning gold for her project at state FCCLA, followed by a silver at nationals.
“He’s the best man I know,” she said.
And though she already has a new FCCLA project in the works for this spring focused on mental health awareness for teens, she decided to host the second annual veterans fundraiser this year because the last one was so successful. Yes, it’s a lot of work, she said, but she enjoys doing it.
“If you have the time to do something, then why wouldn’t you do it?” she said with the profound simplicity of a teenager.
Plus, this years, she has her learner’s permit and is able to drive herself town to pick up all the donated items from local businesses, which so far include a guitar, propane grill, lots of themed gift baskets, original art, gift certificates and other items. Everyone has been super generous, she noted, included Pokey’s donating pork for sandwiches and giving her a great deal on sides. This year, she’s aiming for an even bigger return to be able to help more veterans.
The “Thank a Veteran” dinner takes place at 5 p.m. on Feb. 29 at the American Legion Post 42, across from the Rockpile Museum. Dinner is $10 per person with a live auction to follow.