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Homeless veterans are focus of family kite-flying event in North Tonawanda

NORTH TONAWANDA – The family event “Come Fly a Kite to Help a Homeless Veteran” addresses some of the very real problems of homelessness in the community.

The event – which is free and even provides kites – will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday in Gratwick Riverside Park.

Jack Michel, a member of Chapter 77, Vietnam Veterans of America, founded it and says its popularity is growing. It raised $6,500 in the first year and nearly doubled that amount last summer through the generosity of sponsors.

“We’ve averaged around 500 both years,” Michel said of the attendance. “We are hoping to see a lot more people this year, and we will have more food and more kites to give away.”

Food and drinks will be available for purchase, and there will be clowns and face painting, as well as volunteers to help children assemble their kits and get them up in the air.

The day also will feature specialty kite performances from the Great Lakes Kite Flying Society. Hand-decorated kites painted by the veterans group at Attica Correctional Facility will be raffled off.

In addition, there will be vendors, including both community and veterans information booths.

Michel came up with the idea to help homeless veterans, and he credited the efforts of people who have been working with him to plan and coordinate the event.

“I’ve been involved with veterans’ needs since 2005. One of the fastest-growing problems we saw was veterans coming back from deployment who were ending up losing their houses or apartments,” he said.

In some cases, he said, veterans return to marital problems or find trouble making ends meet when they lose their military income. “A lot of these guys have no job to come back to,” Michel said.

The customary image of the homeless veteran is a man sitting on a curb with stringy hair, he said, but more and more women are serving in the military and face similar problems, as well. In fact, about 17 percent of those in the service are women, he said, and a lot of them have children and are homeless when they return, forced to sleep on a couch or in someone’s basement.

Michel said money raised by the kite event can often be used to pay first and last month’s rent and/or the security deposit in order to get homeless veterans into their own apartments.

He said, “We came home from our service in Vietnam and were told to suck it up and get over it. Vietnam Veterans of America’s mission statement is never again will one generation abandon another. I think it’s important that our folks coming home and out of the service know that there are a number of us trying to live up to that promise.”

Michel said veterans understand how people that come home can be overlooked. “Today they come home and they are called heroes,” he said. “If you are going to say ‘our heroes’ then live up to that and give these folks what they need.”

Although it is not required, kites can be reserved in advance by preregistering at Donations will be accepted at this site and during the event.

Other sponsors of the event include: Vets HERD (Help Empower Returning and Disabled), Veterans Housing Coalition, Mighty Taco, GEICO and CCS Oncology.