Couple creates a resource center to honor and serve disabled veterans
Since Wes and Judy Pierce founded Heroes Night Out eight years ago, the veteran resource center has been a blessing to an ever-growing number of Central Texas veterans and their families who come to the center for activities, events, services, and camaraderie.
Unlike Veterans Affairs healthcare clinics, there are no lines or waiting rooms. Instead, folks are welcome to make themselves at home in the library, game room, or kitchen, while helping themselves to coffee, donuts, and conversations with their peers.
Today, Heroes Night Out Veteran Resource Center serves upwards of 7,000 veterans per year. But the nonprofit, which does not receive government funding, grew to the size it is today before it even had a facility to call home base. Judy and Wes started HNO with a small act of kindness.
The first family served
Eight years ago, when visiting an injured friend at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Judy came across a young woman sitting alone in the courtyard. The woman looked downcast—depressed, even—so Judy sat beside her, hoping to cheer her up.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
Though the question was simple, a mere pleasantry in other contexts, it seemed to be the lifeline the woman needed.
In the next few minutes, Judy learned that the woman’s husband—the family’s sole breadwinner—was a recent double amputee and burn victim who had been transported to the medical center to heal from the severe trauma. The woman was beside herself with grief and fear of what was to come as she continued to raise her children and support her now-disabled husband.
“I want to do something to help her,” Judy told her husband, Wes. “They deserve to have some fun and do something normal.” Wes agreed, and though they didn’t know the woman’s name or how to contact her, they purchased a $50 Chuck E. Cheese’s gift card for the family.
“You have to understand,” said Wes, “the Brooke Army Medical Center is massive, so the chance of us seeing her again was extremely small.” However, as fate would have it, their paths did cross again. The next time they walked into the hospital, the woman was walking out with her kids.
“I’ve got something for you,” said Judy, reaching into her purse and pulling out the gift card. “I hope y’all like pizza!”
A leap of faith
For Wes and Judy, being able to help that first family gave them an immense sense of pleasure and fulfillment that they were eager to repeat. Five of their own 12 children had served in the military—four in the Army and one in the Air Force—and though, thankfully, none of their children came home wounded, Wes and Judy felt a strong pull to do something special for the families of soldiers who did.
Since the gift card idea proved successful, they began raising money to purchase additional Chuck E. Cheese’s gift cards for families of wounded veterans. The idea for HNO blossomed from there.
“I knew that in order to get Heroes Night Out off the ground, I could not just do this a couple nights a week,” says Judy. “So I told Wes, ‘I need to take a leap of faith and quit my job so I can concentrate on this.’” After quitting her job, Judy approached her church to ask if she could use one of their offices as HNO headquarters. They gave her an entire building.
The only problem? It was condemned.
Determined to find a solution, Wes and Judy made more calls and researched renovation companies. That’s how they learned about The Home Depot Foundation, an arm of The Home Depot Company that takes on major community projects. As luck would have it, their application was selected.
“Everything you see—the stage, the floors, the walls, the ceilings—all of that was done by The Home Depot Foundation for free,” says Wes. “About 300 workers and 11 months of work, and it passed inspection.”
Today the HNO Veterans Resource Center serves veterans and their families in a number of ways, including hosting activities and special events and providing much-needed resources like psychologist appointments, counseling, a food bank, and financial services.
Each first Friday of the month, they host a chef-prepared meal and show for veterans and their families, all offered free of charge. In keeping with those first gift cards to Chuck E. Cheese’s, the dinner and show opportunities provide veterans’ families with a fun, lighthearted opportunity to bond with family and friends and experience a semblance of normalcy.
“What many people don’t realize is that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military, and then a very small percent of that less than 1 percent comes home severely wounded,” says Wes. “If you want to talk to the real minority of our country, it’s their kids. Their school teacher can’t relate to them, their counselor can’t relate to them, their Sunday school teacher can’t relate to them, their soccer coach can’t relate to them. And I get emotional when I talk about this, but on the first Friday, for three hours, they’re the majority. And suddenly, they’re not the oddball.”
In addition to First Fridays, HNO offers complimentary Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and even provides gifts for children at Christmastime. This year, because of the overwhelming demand, they will host two Thanksgiving dinners for veterans and their families, in addition to delivering meals for disabled veterans who cannot attend the gathering.
But even setting aside the services and special events, HNO is a safe place for veterans in the community to go. Regardless of their ethnicity, financial status, mental health, or any other consideration, they can count on being accepted and welcomed unconditionally.
“When I first came here, I was not in a good place,” says Carmen Valenzuela, an Army veteran who now works at HNO. “I was suffering from depression and had been unemployed for two or three years; actually, I had PTSD.”
Though she initially visited the center to see a psychologist and to get a military compensation and pension exam, she ended up finding a second home at HNO. “Everyone who comes in, they’re wondering, ‘Am I in the right place?’ Because this place does not look like a typical VA facility,” says Carmen. “But the moment I walked in, a woman greeted me with the biggest hug I’d ever had, and her husband, a Vietnam veteran himself, answered my question.”
“Welcome home, sister,” he said.
Heroes Night Out is a non-government-funded not-for-profit organization that operates strictly on donations. Donations can be made online at www.heroesnightout.org or sent to 1150 South Bell Blvd., Cedar Park, TX 78613. For more information, call 512-986-7660 or visit www.heroesnightout.org.