What: Veterans holiday donations
Where: 951 Eastgate Loop Road, Chattanooga
When: Deadline for donations is Dec. 16
Needed: Gift cards to grocery stores and gas stations
Smiles on veterans' faces and boxes stacked in the hallway mark some of the changes Mike Bearden sees in the Chattanooga Vet Center since his arrival five years ago.
The team leader's last day is today but informal programs and the open atmosphere he helped start at the center may last long after he takes his new post in St. Louis, he said. Bearden will work there as a deputy regional director, overseeing 46 veterans readjustment centers across the country.
When he arrived, the center was seeing about 200 veterans with two counselors and an office manager. The staff now works with more than 500 veterans, has six counselors, an office manager and two interns, Bearden said.
A Vietnam War veteran, he started counseling work while in the Navy. He retired in 1985 and went to work diagnosing veterans' service-related trauma in 1989 at a Veterans Administration clinic in Seattle.
The new post in St. Louis is an opportunity to help an estimated 20,000 veterans and one he said he couldn't refuse. But he'll miss the patients, fellow counselors and community support in Chattanooga, Bearden said.
After Hurricane Ivan destroyed his home and the homes of many of his Pensacola, Fla., patients in 2004, Bearden and that vet center's staff held a food and gift drive for the holidays.
He brought the tradition to Chattanooga his first year here in 2007. Last year, the drive helped 26 veterans' families with food, toiletries and gift cards.
"I was overwhelmed by the response," Bearden said.
This year, the center is trying to do the same. Some veterans already have donated food and other items. One patient received boxed donations from a nonprofit group in Oklahoma, which now line the center's hallway.
The most helpful items, Bearden said, are gift cards for grocery stores and gas.
"I've got a World War II veteran that we gave food to," he said. "Couldn't afford turkey for Thanksgiving, we got him a turkey. There's no excuse for a World War II veteran not to be able to buy a turkey, not in this country."
The food drive is a tangible result of his work there but more open communication between the center and the local Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic and its Murfreesboro, Tenn., headquarters has helped, he said.
Weekly staff meetings, training, more staff and increased public outreach all mark Bearden's work at the center, said Dr. Harry Jackson, who will manage the center after Bearden leaves.
"The veterans feel very comfortable coming to him," Jackson said. "He's very giving of his time and himself. He's just a good friend, you can call on him anytime."