More than 500 military veterans took advantage of a one-stop shop event at the Santa Maria Fairpark Saturday where they could get free goods and services ranging from apparel, food, health screenings and even legal help.
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. the veterans, with children and family members, or accompanied by a partner Air Force member from Vandenberg Air Force Base, took advantage of the annual Veterans Stand Down, which has grown bigger and bigger since its inception in 2012.
The event is modeled after other communities around the state that served homeless and at-risk veterans for decades and was launched seven years ago by Santa Barbara County Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino.
"Years ago, Supervisor Lavagnino came to people around the county and asked if it was possible to make a Veterans Stand Down event happen here in this town," said Frank Mejia, service provider coordinator of the Veterans Stand Down. "He then formed a committee, and we all took on a role to provide everything we could possible for our veterans."
Registered attendees were given a wristband upon entry to the fairgrounds on Saturday; veterans were given a red band, volunteers were given a blue band, family members of veterans were given a yellow band, and green wristbands were given to homeless veterans.
The color-coded wristbands help volunteers better identify specific items each veteran would need, said Mejia.
At the Fairpark, the Stand Down had everything available, from trade employers, organizations seeking to hire employees, resume writing, clothes, shoes, toiletries, education, legal help from the Santa Barbara County Office of the Public Defender, medical help, immunization shots, dental check-ups, military benefits, to even a shave and a haircut.
"We also every year have a lot of community partners like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Good Samaritan and county agencies like CalWorks, CalFresh, MediCal that come together," said Mejia. "It really is a one-stop shop -- you come here for a day, get pampered, get breakfast, bring your pet to get groomed, bathed and microchipped."
Mejia added: "We also have PTSD counseling for military vets, LGBTQ organizations, you name it we have it -- it's all under one place."
U.S. Army veteran John Venus, who left the military in September 1991, said it was his first time attending the event in Santa Maria on Saturday, and was able to go home with a new jacket, boots, socks, a backpack and career advice.
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"This is so helpful -- there's so many useful things here," said Venus.
Born in Dallas, Texas, Venus served in the U.S. Army for almost 10 years and traveled all over the country and Europe. He started his military career in infantry then became a mortar man. The last four years of his military career, Venus was in special operations.
Venus heard about Saturday's event from his three-month Veterans Treatment Program in Santa Maria, which he enrolled in on Sept. 11.
"A lot of us veterans need help and this is so much help for us," said Venus. "They offer so many different programs here at the Stand Down. One of the biggest things military veterans, including myself, have to go through a lot of times is PTSD.
"Just to have help from the community like this helps us a lot and helps us know that we're not alone," Venus continued. "Today, I don't feel alone -- I feel like I'm with my whole family here."
Mejia said planning for the annual Veterans Stand Down never seems to stop; immediately after Saturday's event is over, "we have an action review to decipher how the day went.
We ask all the volunteers to give feedback on things we could improve, or bring next year, things like that," he said. "We have an incredible amount of supporters in our community that make today possible."
Mejia said it's rewarding for the committee and its large team of volunteers to return every year for the Stand Down and see how many lives are changed just from one trip to the Santa Maria Fairpark.
"I sometimes wonder if folks like myself or other volunteers don't get more out of it than the veterans do because quite honestly, because our men and women in uniform have given up so much for us," said Mejia, "it's an honor for us to be here and do this for them."