Serving vets and saving vets in Mayfair
by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy
With America winding down two wars and flirting with other military interventions around the globe, Philadelphia’s Veterans Multi-Service Center in 2013 was overwhelmed with donations to help returning vets get back on their feet. The problem was where to put it all.
Suits donated through radio DJ John DeBella’s annual Veterans Radiothon hung from pipes in the dimly lit, inaccessible-by-elevator fifth floor of the center’s Old City building. Other clothes lay in high piles on tables. Shoes were stacked in the basement. Furniture was off site, in two rented storage units. Pairing donations with needy vets was cumbersome, at best. “Even with all the donations, we had no good way to get vets what they needed,” says Rose Brandau McGee, who was a family financial advisor at the center. “Often, we would just go and pull out whatever was closest to the front to give to them. They didn’t get to choose what they took home.”
So McGee and her boss, VMC former executive director Tim Meserve, set out to find a better way. In May 2013, Meserve bought an old thrift store in Mayfair, and turned it over to McGee to create a space where veterans could browse through donated clothes and furnishings. But McGee did more than that. Eighteen months later, she has turned the Camouflage Rhino Thrift Store into a successful jobs program for veterans, and a potentially profitable business that is expanding to the suburbs.
To McGee, this work is personal. She has a son currently serving in Afghanistan. Her dad was in Korea, and her husband was in the Army during Vietnam. Several cousins, uncles and aunts also served, and many sought help from the Vet Center when they came home. In her work at the VMC, McGee witnessed a new generation of veterans returning with few job prospects, an inability to navigate civilian life and, often, invisible wounds like PTSD and traumatic brain injuries that kept them from moving forward. “Vets are getting neglected, by the VA and by the community,” she says. “We need a better system to prepare these guys for what they may need in the future. I’m just doing a small bit of that.” Continue reading