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Russell Salvatore donates $300K for vans to drive veterans to VA hospital

Kevin Elis was waiting in the pharmacy of Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center when he heard four men behind him grumbling about their long ride home.

The former Army paratrooper stepped outside and saw four of the vans used to transport veterans to and from their appointments at the hospital.

"They were just a total disgrace," he said.

Rusted and with their American flag graphics faded, Elis learned they were used for parts and as backups, but the rest of the fleet was not in much better shape. Many of the Disabled American Veterans organization's 10 vans ranging from model years 2003 through 2011 had logged over 150,000 miles.

Elis set out to raise $144,000, enough to buy eight vans after the DAV chipped in $112,000. He met with local elected officials, and sent nearly 400 letters soliciting donations.

Donations totaling about $6,000 trickled in.

Then, in early May he met with restaurateur Russell J. Salvatore, hoping for $5,000.

Salvatore, also a veteran, listened to the pitch and crunched some numbers with his assistant. "Do it," was the answer. Replace all 10 vans. Now.

"I think it was a home run," Salvatore said. "It took me about 20 seconds to say I'll do it."


Russell J. Salvatore, left, and Bill O'Brocta, commercial fleet sales manager for Joe Basil Chevrolet, stand with one of 10 vans Salvatore is donating to transport veterans to and from their appointments at the VA hospital.


Elis was stunned.

"I almost had a heart attack as I sat there," he said. "Now, to draw a picture, I'm six-foot-four, about 300 pounds. I've been yelled at by generals, command sergeant majors, lieutenants and I've worked with the Sheriff's Office. That 84-year-old man made me almost cry."

The $300,000 donation was the latest in a long line of recent philanthropic gestures from the millionaire Salvatore, including a $1 million donation earlier this year to Erie County Medical Center's capital campaign for a new trauma center emergency room.

In 2012, he paid to upgrade the televisions in patient rooms at ECMC. A couple of years later, he donated $500,000 for a new orthopedic unit in his name at the hospital. The Russell J. Salvatore Orthopedic Unit opened in 2016.

"I want to do as many things for the community as I possibly could so when Russ Salvatore dies they can say, 'He was a nice guy,' " Salvatore said Thursday in his office.

The vans will be unveiled at noon Monday during a dedication in the Patriots & Heroes Park in front of his Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More on Transit Road in Lancaster. The dedication was timed to coincide with National Purple Heart Day, which commemorates veterans wounded in combat.

The 2017 Chevrolet Express 12-passenger vans purchased from Joe Basil Chevrolet have all the latest safety features, including OnStar navigation service, Bluetooth, backup alarms and cameras and running boards so elderly veterans can step up easier. Veterans in wheelchairs are transported in different vans that are specially-equipped and operated by trained drivers, he said.

The vans will have about $30,000 in vinyl patriotic graphics applied by Streamline Designs in North Tonawanda and paid for by the Basil dealership. The graphics include stars and stripes, the Disabled American Veterans logo and an eagle head and "God Bless America" on the rear doors.

"The people that are going to be riding in these vans did a lot for us," said Bill O'Brocta, the dealership's commercial fleet sales manager. "We've got to make sure they're in vans that are reliable, dependable and get them where they need to go."

The vans and their volunteer drivers provide round-trip service daily to about 25 veterans from Erie and Niagara counties, said coordinator Robert McTighe.

This year they're averaging over 900 patient trips per month and logging an average of about 15,000 miles per month, he said.

"We'll be putting them in service right away," McTighe said. "We'll be turning out our old fleet, bringing in that new fleet and we're going to start driving them and picking up people right away."

There's a nod to Salvatore and his restaurant on one of the rear windows of each van.

"How can you buy a better billboard?" Salvatore asked. "You're going to get at least eight years out of the vans. You've got 10 vans driving all over the city picking up veterans."

Elis hatched the fundraising plan in January after his visit to the VA. A process that he was told would take 1½ years has taken only six months.

To Elis, of Alden, who is 100 percent disabled from injuries suffered during a jump over Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1995, the gift from Salvatore still makes him emotional.

"You couldn't ask for more of a fairy tale," he said. "I couldn't sleep last night because I saw six of the vans. It just overwhelms me. It was an idea I had and within six months it's done. I'm just in awe."

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