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Helping local heroes celebrate the holidays, one tree at a time

U.S. Army veteran Burl Dickerson [left], with his fiancee Connie Novak, Jaime and Jersey, poses with their first live Christmas tree.

For some people, it’s just a tree. For others, it’s a luxury that makes a difference from celebrating another day in December and celebrating the holiday season.

“We have never had a live Christmas tree before,” U.S. Army veteran Burl Dickerson said on Dec. 10. “This year will be the first time the kids have had a real tree too. I think it’ll be something they’ll remember for a long time. We’re just trying to make it special for them.”

Dickerson and his fiancée were among a select group of veterans who received an early holiday gift on Dec. 10 when members of a local nonprofit met them in Manchester for a day of holiday enjoyment. About 100 veterans received a free Christmas tree and stand courtesy of The Kaufman Fund. Attendees also were greeted by Santa and Mrs. Claus, therapy dogs and local vendors who brought free hot chocolate, coffee and Bundt cakes.

Additionally, about 85 trees were sent to St. Patrick’s Center in St. Louis City, 25 were sent to the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars [VFW] organization in Perryville, Missouri, and about 50 were sent to Sts. Joachim & Ann Care Service in St. Charles County. Over 325 trees were donated in total.

“The trees really help these individuals with the feeling of Christmas coming on,” Jonathan Belcher, senior director of permanent supportive housing and program manager of Project HERO at the St. Patrick’s Center, said. “It’s a really big deal. Some of these veterans haven’t had an apartment for years, and they haven’t had a tree for even longer than that.”

The Dec. 10 event was part of The Kaufman Fund’s fourth annual Trees for Vets program.

“This is definitely going to be better than the plastic tree we have in our house now,” Connie Novak said. “My son [Jaime] even found a tiny tree that he’s going to put in his room.”

Jaime Novak, of Overland, poses with a personal tree for his bedroom.

Organizers say that’s what the event is all about – spreading holiday cheer.

“To see those veterans and their children grab a Christmas tree, and have a cup of hot chocolate and scratch those therapy dogs under the chin and get a Bundt cake, it just gives you this warm feeling,” Al Finkelstein, board member of The Kaufman Fund, said. “For the hour they might be out here, we’ve given them a little bit of joy in their life that will continue when they get that tree decorated and they have a wonderful holiday season.”

The Kaufman Fund is a local nonprofit headquartered in Creve Coeur that has worked with veterans’ and children’s organizations across St. Louis and the state of Missouri since 1990.

According to Wayne Kaufman, founder and president of The Kaufman Fund, the Trees for Vets program has distributed 1,400 trees since its inception and works with over 25 veterans and children’s organizations in Missouri, mostly based in the St. Louis area.

Kaufman founded the nonprofit in memory of his brother, Ralph, an Air Force veteran who donated to many children’s charities. Kaufman, a Vietnam War veteran himself, served in the Army for three years and attained the rank of sergeant in the 25th Infantry Division in 1969, earning both the Bronze Star Medal and the Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster.

“We’re very well known in the veteran community, so they know we give out trees and people will let us know if somebody needs a tree and they can’t afford one,” Kaufman said. “I have a real passion for helping veterans with all different kinds of needs.”

Zachary [left] and Matthew Hodges pose with Santa Claus at the Trees for Vets event. Their father is currently serving in the U.S. Army Reserve.

In addition to Christmas trees, the organization offers support to local veterans and at-risk children coping with abuse and poverty. The goal is to help provide veterans and families with needs like food, shelter, warm clothing and medical care. The organization also provides services such as accessing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] therapy, assisting with honor flights to Washington, D.C., and securing housing opportunities for veterans.

“Once you’ve really been in war, it changes you,” Kaufman said.

According to him, the nonprofit has raised about $1 million for local charities in the past 20 years through donations and community sponsorships. Among those that have benefitted are Camp Hope, a outdoor retreat for wounded veterans located in Farmington, Missouri; and the Warrior’s Child Scholarship annually awarded to child or grandchild of a veteran.

“All the money we receive, we give it all away,” Kaufman said. “We don’t have any staff, we don’t have any employees. The executive board and board members are all volunteers.”

Volunteers from Enterprise Bank & Trust at the Trees for Vets event.

Irwin Loiterstein, board member with the Kaufman Fund, explained that those veterans participating in the Trees for Vets program received a private notice of when and where to pick up their trees – both to protect privacy and authenticity.

Loiterstein has over 45 years experience working in the Christmas tree business, specifically with the National Christmas Tree Association in Chesterfield. The association worked to provide trees to military posts, bases and units for the holiday season. The experience served as partial inspiration for the existing Trees for Vets program.

“It started out with us giving out about 300 trees, and it’s grown a little bit each year we’ve handed them out,” Loiterstein said.

According to Loiterstein, the organization secured about 400 trees this season, despite a predicted Christmas tree shortage. The tree and stand together cost the nonprofit about $30, an amount covered by donors and sponsorships, including those from Enterprise Bank & Trust, the Northwest Chamber of Commerce, Bommarito Automotive Group and the West St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce.

Manchester Mayor Dave Willson said the event was advertised in the Manchester Messenger, at board meetings and at the city’s Veteran’s Day Breakfast on Nov. 10.

Santa and Mrs. Claus with West St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce President Lori Kelling and Manchester Mayor Dave Willson.

“I told everyone about it at the trustee meetings and then, I took fliers down to organizations like Circle Of Concern,” Willson said. “I went over last year to work at the event for the first time and got to talk to the soldiers that were there and talk to the veterans that came through. It was kind of a sad experience, but it [also] was really fulfilling.”

Four years and over 1,000 trees later, the Trees for Vets program has yet to turn a veteran away.

“Hopefully, we never have to decline somebody. The bigger we get, we’d hope that we’d be able to give more trees away,” Finkelstein said. “People tell us about how we’ve given them a tree in previous years, and that it was the only thing their family had. I have a form written up that says, ‘We’re sorry, but we’re unable to give you a tree this year,’ and I’ve never sent it.”

Although some of the veterans that receive trees are local, the organization gives trees to veterans from far and wide.

“We had one gentleman last year whose house burned down last October, and he literally had nothing,” Finkelstein said. “He and his wife drove over from Illinois, and they were at least able to celebrate Christmas and the holiday season with their families.”

Al Finkelstein [left] talks with veteran Jim Stewart.

According to Kaufman, the Trees for Vets program also provides a way for veterans to care for their brothers and sisters in arms. Additionally, the organization holds multiple fundraisers throughout the year, including its annual Derby Casino Night and Poker Tournament that coincides with the Kentucky Derby. The annual Ralph Kaufman Memorial Golf Tournament has been its largest fundraiser for over 20 years. For the past five years, Whitmoor Country Club has been its host.

“The golf tournament has been a very successful fundraiser,” Finkelstein said. “We have veterans that come out and participate to play and, of course, we get major sponsors and other individuals.”

According to Kaufman, the fundraisers combined raise an average of $50,000 to $60,000 to support veteran programs. One of those programs is the Fund’s very own Dental Lifeline Network. About 20 local dentists provide free to low-cost dental care to veterans. The organization also has teamed up with the Dental Lifeline Network out of Denver, Colorado, to provide veterans with dentures and other dental materials.

“I found out that the VA doesn’t give dental care to veterans unless they’re 100 percent disabled,” Kaufman said. “I was kind of shocked about that. I get calls almost every day from veterans needing all kinds of help, and they can have the same issues if not more than everyone else does.”

The Kaufman Fund also has its own Legal Referral Program to provide veterans with assistance in areas like divorce, adoption, evictions, trusts, felonies and more. Its service area includes West St. Louis County, St. Louis City and St. Charles County. Officially launched last fall, on Oct. 31, the program already has a network of about 30 local lawyers working pro bono or at a reduced rate.

“It’s not hard to get people on board,” Kaufman said. “If you’re a veteran and you hear our story, you’re in. If you’re not a veteran but you have veterans in your family and you hear our story, you’re in. If you’re not a veteran and you don’t have any veterans in your family and you hear our story, there’s a little bit of guilt there and you kind of want to give back to those who have served.” In other words, you’re in.

Kaufman Fund volunteers [from left] Irwin Loiterstein, Wayne Kaufman, Howard Berliner, Steve Rosenbloom and Al Finkelstein at the Trees for Vets event.

“I have a lot of people who call me and say, ‘We want to donate money to a veterans organization, but we’re not sure who to trust,'” Kaufman said. His response is that “if you give the money to the Kaufman Fund, we’ll distribute it to about 25 different veterans organizations. We’ve already done the homework and the vetting for these organizations. I know every single president or executive director of the organizations that we give back to.

“There’s just a lot of veterans, like myself, who are also passionate about doing whatever we can do to help these guys and gals.”

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