A helping hand for service members: The work of the Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition

A new flagpole. A sturdy deck to walk on. Help relocating a veteran and their family to an accessible house.

After serving their country, these are a few of the projects that local veterans and their families recently needed a helping hand with.

A group of volunteers work on veteran George Hartnagle’s deck this fall.

While there are numerous local, regional and national services to help veterans, when it comes to the things that make daily life easier, those specific and often urgent needs sometimes don’t fit the mission or volunteer capacity of larger organizations.

Often, it is the caring actions and immediate help that is most needed, but can tend to be constrained by paperwork and a procedural checklist when left to traditional organizations – and that is exactly where the Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition steps in.

Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition’s trailer, which is aimed to be filled with donations for veterans this month.

It’s hard to define all that the Coalition does to help veterans – because it’s a little bit of everything. And since needs from local veterans come in all different shapes and sizes, they also get help from just about everyone – which creates quite a wide net.

Simply put, the Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition mobilizes help for local veterans, with urgency, in their time of need.

Carpentry skills are something that can always be put to good use on projects with the Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition.

Recently, when a veteran’s daughter was severely injured in a car accident and in a coma for two weeks, the Coalition, along with eight other organizations, helped move the family to an accessible house so they could better care for their daughter. The entire process was orchestrated within the span of a week and the actual move was completed by a spirited band of volunteers in just two hours and 15 minutes.

When a 95-year old veteran became too frail to raise and lower his flag every day, the Coalition worked with Valley Electric, who paid for and installed a new illuminated flagpole that so that he could continue to honor the flag each day.

The 2nd Annual Personal Hygiene Goods Drive: Operation Fill the Trailer 2019 runs through the month of November.

When 85-year-old veteran George Hartnagle had a fall on his porch, the Coalition stepped in to rebuild his deck and install railings.

The Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition got its start after two members saw a local need through involvement in their employer’s veteran group. After serving in the United States Navy for nine years, Brad Blanchard helped with local veterans causes at Dow after moving to Midland in 2007. Blanchard later started the Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition with the help of another coworker in the local veteran group when the two realized there was additional need for a community outreach group focused on providing local veterans with support. As the list of area veterans in critical need grew, Blanchard brought together veterans from other regional businesses and organizations to help create a community outreach coalition focused on providing local veterans and their families with support.

Brad Blanchard from the Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition at WakeUp! Midland.

The main focus of the Coalition is on the Great Lakes Bay Region, but the group is a dedicated band of volunteers and have traveled well beyond that to help for the right project and person in need – the group has even been to the Upper Peninsula a few times.

The Coalition helps tackle an average of two to three projects per month for area veterans, sometimes more, if time and resources allow. Often times the ask is simple, like helping with funds to help meet an electric bill. Other times, the need is something that requires more resources or help from an outside company.

Donated goods will hopefully equip veterans in the region with supplies to last throughout the year.

The Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition has long-standing relationships with several local organizations including Niles Plant Services, Valley Electric, Bierlein Companies Inc, Three Rivers Corporation, the Midland Area Community Foundation, several general contractors for home repairs and many more.

Volunteers are what make the projects run smoothly and often the Coalition posts a current list of needs on their Facebook page. Asks can range from large to small, like the need for puzzles and a warm comforter for a veteran’s widow or a working computer to help someone keep track of their finances and doctor appointments.

Operation Fill the Trailer 2019 aims to help local veterans with basic supplies.

“The biggest reward is getting the honor to help others in times of need,” says Blanchard. “It is a great feeling to get to help someone during what might be a bad time in their life and knowing you had a part in helping to make it better.”

“And the second biggest reward, which is by design, is that most, if not all of our projects are kid-friendly, so we are inspiring and teaching kids from an early age the power in helping someone out,” says Blanchard.

“Personally, my daughter has been involved with our volunteer efforts from the beginning, since she was about three or four years old. She’s 17 now, and getting pretty good at delegating and managing her own aspects of many of these projects. It’s important that most of the projects we do are as kid-friendly as possibly, because many times we will get families volunteering to help a veteran out.”

Matt Rassette, Matt Smith and Brad Blanchard at the Operation Fill the Trailer 2019 kickoff.

Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition also works with 211 of Northeast Michigan to help direct resources to area veterans in need. The group works to identify local and urgent needs that go unfulfilled by other resources and also provides educational experiences to local schools.

“We work with local schools to teach kids flag etiquette and other educational components as well,” says Blanchard. “Our last one we had two Army and two Navy veterans each, and we try to send a mix of men and women so that kids learn that a veteran doesn’t look like any one person.”

The Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition also teaches flag etiquette and other programs at area schools.

Flag etiquette is just one of 15-20 programs a year run by Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition. Other efforts include helping to clean up service member’s headstones at cemeteries, helping school-aged children learn about Patriotism, recognizing companies that display the flag and working with the VA hospital to name a few.

The Coalition needs very little to get started, simply needing to verify someone’s veteran status and being aware of a need.  

Matt Smith, local realtor and veteran has been formally volunteering for over a year with the group. For him, it can be summed up in gratitude.

It’s not all serious, this group likes to have fun in the process of helping others. (Note: Matt Smith was not harmed in the making of this article.)

“I am so incredibly grateful for being able to be involved with a purpose-driven group that gives so freely of time, money, effort to help pull a brother or sister up in times of need,” says Smith. “Inherently, you have a connection with all other services members and I had been out of the service for 20 years, so it’s really nice to give back to a group that helps so many local veterans.

You might have come across the Coalition or their trailer lately, as the 2nd Annual Personal Hygiene Goods Drive: Operation Fill the Trailer 2019, kicked off on November 1 at WakeUp! Midland and runs through the end of the month, moving around to different businesses and organizations. The effort aims to equip local veterans in need with a year’s worth of personal care and home supplies including body wash, deodorant, mouth wash, laundry detergent and more. The trailer is traveling the rest of the month, making stops for donations at Dow, DuPont, Corteva, J.E. Johnson and more.

Matt Rassette, an active Coalition member talks about the group’s efforts at the Operation Fill the Trailer kickoff event.

If you or someone you know is interested in helping the Great Lakes Bay Veterans Coalition, you can find them on Facebook, sign up for their newsletter or donate to one of the many locations that are collecting for the Personal Hygiene Goods Drive, which hopes to collect donations to supply area veterans in need for an entire year.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.