Veterans Helping Veterans

by Tim Froberg

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Jack Voight had a vision of bringing veterans together to share conversation and camaraderie.

He never dreamed the fledgling group would grow to such significant proportions.

Voight is the founder of Vets and Friends of Wisconsin Inc. – an Appleton-based nonprofit organization that strives to make life better for military veterans through benefits, services and socialization.

Vets and Friends has a no-charge coffee house and a food pantry at 2508 N. Richmond St. It’s also a social center with a backyard garden area complete with patio furniture and a non-alcoholic bar, giving veterans a comfortable place to relax and chat.

But it has become more than just a gathering place for veterans. In addition to serving free breakfast to veterans on Fridays and free lunch on Saturdays, Vets and Friends helps homeless veterans find housing and offers mental health services through a local therapist-counselor affiliated with the VA Community program.

“Originally, I thought this would be a small group of guys just having a place to get together and talk,” said Voight. “I didn’t realize it would grow so fast. By the end of 2020, it looks like we’re going to have close to 600 members. We’re actually starting to get a little cramped here.”

Membership is free and the meals are available to family and friends of veterans. A large group of volunteers – comprised mostly of veterans – works hard to make sure the meals come off without a hitch. Vets and Friends has partnered with St. Joseph Food Program, which provides nearly 60 percent of the food served.

Oh, and there is much more. The group recently started a clothes pantry to provide free apparel for veterans and has a service officer available to help veterans with disability benefits. Future plans include putting together profiles of local veterans who have contributed to the community and establishing a Vietnam Wall featuring pictures and profiles of local Vietnam vets.

“A lot of people don’t realize that well-known people in our community like Oscar Boldt and John Mielke are veterans,” said Voight. “Our members are from 20 to 99. Our oldest member, Lloyd Ellefson, is 99. He was a World War II veteran, a Battle of the Bulge guy.”

What’s amazing about Vets and Friends – the only nonprofit veterans coffeehouse in Wisconsin – is that it has been around for less than three years. Voight, a Vietnam veteran and a former insurance agent, remodeled his old insurance building in 2017 and later added an annex for the food pantry and meeting rooms. A seven-member board of directors was appointed the same year to oversee the organization.

“A lot of exciting things have happened,” said Voight, 74, a former state treasurer and New London High School graduate. “I started it but can’t take all the credit because a lot of veterans and volunteers have put in a lot of effort. We’re serving 3,000 hot meals a year now and it takes a lot of volunteers to pull that off. We’ve been so fortunate to have our partnership with St. Joseph’s food pantry.

“I really appreciate all the help and support we’ve received. We have a lot of different resources available. We don’t want our veterans to go through things alone. We want to pull together, hang together. The sharing of stories and camaraderie among our veterans has been tremendous.”