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Jim Kenyon: ‘Weird trunk ladies’ keep veterans fed after nonprofit retreats

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    Volunteers Tiffany Miller, of Bridgewater, Vt., and Heaven Larocque, of Canaan, N.H., haul groceries to the "free table" at the American Legion Guyer-Carignan Post #22 on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Lebanon, N.H. The women distribute food for veterans in the Upper Valley. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Coast Guard veteran Jim Bagley, of Grantham, N.H., take just a bag of potatoes in the basement of the American Legion Guyer-Carignan Post #22 on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Lebanon, N.H. Volunteers had tables loaded with donated food for the vets to help themselves. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • In the parking lot of the American Legion Guyer-Carignan Post #22 on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Lebanon, N.H., Morgana Isenberg, an outreach coordinator for the White River Junction Vet Center, and volunteer Heaven Larocque share food from the Coop Food Stores to distribute to veterans. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/27/2022 5:16:30 AM
Modified: 11/27/2022 5:16:13 AM

They have only been at it for a month, but the “weird trunk ladies” — as the four women jokingly call themselves — have already synchronized their routine with military precision.

At 8:15 Monday morning, Heaven Larocque pulled her Jeep SUV to a stop at the front entrance of the Lebanon Co-op in Centerra Park. Seconds later, Doren Hall, the grocery store’s manager, rolled out a utility cart piled high with a dozen boxes of fresh vegetables, fruits, bread, frozen meats and assorted goodies.

Hall loaded the boxes into the trunk of Larocque’s SUV. “There are two boxes of pies,” he said, closing the now filled-to-the-brim back of the SUV.

“They’ll love it,” Larocque said. (The “they” being needy military veterans and their families in the Upper Valley and beyond.)

With the first part of her mission completed, Larocque set off for the other side of Lebanon and American Legion Post 22. But first she made a pit stop at Dunkin’ for a large coffee.

Larocque, 35, works the overnight shift as an emergency telephone operator at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Instead of driving straight home to Canaan on Monday mornings, she heads across Route 120 to the Co-op. Sleep will have to wait.

“There are veterans out there who need help, but they’re too prideful to ask for it,” Larocque said. “They go off and serve our country and fight for us. Then when they get home, who fights for them?”

Sipping her coffee in the empty Post 22 parking lot on Mechanic Street, Larocque waited for the other trunk ladies.

Morgana Isenberg arrived first. Isenberg is the outreach program specialist at the White River Junction Vet Center, which is affiliated with the VA Medical Center.

The two women worked in unison, transferring boxes of food from Larocque’s vehicle to Isenberg’s trunk.

“What Heaven is doing is amazing,” Isenberg told me. “Her dedication is real.”

Isenberg runs a drive-thru food shelf on Wednesday mornings for veterans who stop by before or after hospital appointments. Her regulars include vets from Burlington and Rutland.

Reaching into one of the half-dozen boxes still in her trunk, Larocque handed Isenberg a bag of frozen mango slices. Isenberg nodded, appreciatively.

“I have a veteran who comes only when there’s fruit,” she said. “He makes smoothies.”

Tiffany Miller was the next to pull into the parking lot. Her car’s trunk is already chock-full. Miller, who lives in Bridgewater, had stopped at Upper Valley Produce to pick up milk and blocks of Cabot cheese that the White River Junction wholesaler had donated to the trunk ladies’ cause.

Jennifer Danielson brought up the rear. Shortly after Danielson had arrived from her home in Hartland, a man on crutches made his way across the parking lot.

Ray Stone, who lost a leg in a motorcycle crash years ago, served in the Navy as a gunner’s mate aboard the super carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the late 1970s — after the U.S. had pulled troops out of Vietnam.

“I’m not sorry that I missed it,” he said wryly.

I asked Stone, who is Larocque’s dad, what he thought about the trunk ladies’ efforts.

“It’s great,” he said. “It would be nice if they could find a warmer spot.”

“We have,” Larocque piped in.

Post 22 leaders offered the use of the club’s basement function hall, and with winter fast approaching, the women gladly accepted.

Late Monday morning, Larocque, Miller and Danielson unloaded their trunks and sorted through the food in the function hall. Fruits and vegetables on one table. Bread and pies on another.

Why are they committed to, as Isenberg described it, giving veterans a “hand up, not a handout?”

Isenberg, who lives in Windsor, is the group’s only veteran, having served in the Army for eight years. The others have military ties. Miller’s husband is a National Guardsman, and Danielson has children who enlisted. Larocque traces her family’s military background to her great-great-grandfather in World War I. Along with her grandfather and father having served, she has cousins who saw duty in Vietnam.

A disturbance in the force

There’s more to the story than four women getting together on Monday mornings to help veterans who sometimes struggle to make ends meet.

The lead-up began a little more than a year ago when a Massachusetts nonprofit called Project New Hope opened a satellite office in White River Junction.

New Hope, which got started in Worcester, Mass., in 2011, bills itself as an “empowerment center” that provides food, clothing and other essentials to veterans and their families. It also offers weekend retreats to veterans experiencing difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

Last year, New Hope, which also has an office in Westfield, Mass., established a third location not far from the VA Medical Center in White River Junction.

Danielson was hired to manage the operation, which featured a free food pantry, in the Gilman Office Center, off Sykes Mountain Avenue. The newest New Hope also provided children’s clothing, baby formula and diapers to veterans’ families.

Miller became the nonprofit’s outreach coordinator. Larocque, who is Miller’s cousin, joined as a volunteer. She helped with fundraising events and organized a weekly social hour where vets could drop in for coffee to talk among themselves.

Within a year, the center was serving more than 70 families. But Danielson and Miller said they were told that wasn’t good enough.

After organizing a successful food drive outside a West Lebanon supermarket this fall, Danielson and Miller figured they had shown their bosses in Worcester that the White River Junction center was viable.

In late October, however, Miller and Danielson came to work one morning to discover their office keys didn’t work. The locks had been changed.

The women were later allowed back inside to collect their personal belongings. They also received small severance packages.

Last week, I stopped by the office building. The doors that once led to New Hope were locked. The organization’s signs had been taken off the doors.

New Hope’s website still lists a White River Junction office with a phone number. When I called, I got a recording. I left phone messages for New Hope founder and CEO Bill Moore at the Worcester office last week. I didn’t hear back.

After New Hope closed its doors without warning, Larocque posted on Facebook about what had happened. Her post struck home with Hall, the Lebanon Co-op manager. After graduating from high school in Virginia, Hall joined the Army. He served in Iraq, following the first U.S. invasion in the early 1990s.

The Hanover Consumer Co-operative, which operates four food stores in the Upper Valley, has a long history of donating goods to social service organizations. Slightly bruised or blemished produce that otherwise would be tossed out. Meats nearing their sale expiration date are frozen and given away. Vendors sometimes mistakenly send a brand of soup or other staples the Co-op doesn’t stock. If the vendor doesn’t want the items returned, which is almost always the case, the Co-op is free to donate them.

After learning about New Hope’s abrupt departure from the Upper Valley, Hall talked with his store’s department heads about setting aside boxes of food for Larocque to pick up on Mondays.

“It’s the right thing for us to do,” Hall told me.

A persistent demand

“U.S. veterans are less likely to live in poverty than their nonveteran counterparts, but approximately 1.5 million live below the federal poverty level,” the RAND Corp., a nonprofit public policy research organization, wrote on its website in 2021. “An additional 2.4 million veterans are thought to live paycheck to paycheck at approximately twice the federal poverty level.”

Upper Valley veterans who live on the edge are no different than veterans in other parts of the country, said Post 22 Commander Ken Olney. With rising food and fuel prices, “this year is harder than ever,” he said.

Veterans, like many other Americans, had relied on COVID-19 relief money to get by the last couple of years. Now the federal money is drying up.

“A lot of older veterans are taking care of their kids and grandkids,” Isenberg said. “They no longer have the means to do it.”

Andrea Dent, who belongs to the women’s auxiliary at Post 22, stopped by the function hall on Monday morning. She filled a box with vegetables and ground turkey to drop off at the home of a World War II veteran in his later 90s. Before leaving, Dent tossed a small bag of chocolates into the box.

“He’ll like these,” she said.

Soldiering on

Before the trunk ladies moved indoors last Monday, a red pickup pulled into the Post 22 parking lot.

Jeremiah Crosby, of Springfield, N.H., had heard about them at the Vet Center, where Isenberg works.

Three wartime deployments, including two to Iraq, took a physical and mental toll on Crosby. At 43, he’s had to give up his job as a heavy equipment mechanic with the National Guard. He’s awaiting surgery on pinched nerves in his neck that make it difficult for him to raise his arms above his shoulders.

“I’m not in the greatest spot now,” he told me.

Larocque handed Crosby, who has four kids living at home, a box of food, along with a 15-pound turkey that she’d obtained through a veterans group in Littleton, N.H.

Before leaving in his truck, Crosby walked across the parking lot where the women stood by their open car trunks.

“I just want to say thank you,” he said.

The women encouraged Crosby to stop by again. “We’re here every Monday morning,” Larocque said.

Although they have no love lost for the Project New Hope officials who abandoned the Upper Valley without notice, the trunk ladies are, in a strange way, thankful for the opportunity it’s given them.

“It sucks what (Project New Hope) did, but the bonds we created there are fantastic,” Larocque told me. “We’ve become a sisterhood.”

“We’ll continue to do what we can to help our vets,” she added. “It’s not going to stop.”

There’s nothing weird about that.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.


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