Coffee, doughnuts and help with problems such as homelessness and health care are available to military veterans every Tuesday morning in Santa Rosa.
And it's all provided by volunteers such as Andy Pyburn, a Vietnam-era veteran who was once homeless and approached the Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy on his own.
"I made a lot of useless trips," said Pyburn, 55, a Santa Rosa resident who served seven years in the Army, mostly stationed in Europe, before leaving as a staff sergeant in 1981.
Like many of his peers, Pyburn got along fine without VA benefits for years, attending Santa Rosa Junior College on the GI Bill and working at various jobs that provided health insurance.
But circumstances caught up with him, including complications from a service injury -- his jaw was broken by a tank hatch -- and his own "lack of focus on my other responsibilities," Pyburn said.
While setting his own life in order, Pyburn helped start Sonoma County Vet Connect, a nonprofit and emphatically nonpolitical organization, in 2008.
Its motto is "veterans helping veterans," and its goal is to form a bridge between local veterans and their families and the government and private agencies available to help them with medical care, housing, employment and other services.
Pyburn, who lives on a VA pension, is one of about 15 regular volunteers, most of them Vietnam-era vets, who set out the coffee and doughnuts from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial building, with similar sessions once a month at the Guerneville, Sonoma and Petaluma vets buildings.
"I don't like seeing any of my fellow veterans miss an opportunity to move forward," Pyburn said. He knows firsthand how a veteran can slip into the "cycle of homelessness," sleeping under bridges and in shelters.
"Our goal is to set them up for success," said Pyburn, who spends up to 18 hours a week on Vet Connect business.
That often starts with personally introducing a veteran to a representative of one of several agencies -- including the VA Outpatient Clinic in Santa Rosa, North Bay Vet Center in Rohnert Park and the North Bay Veterans Resource Center -- that attend Vet Connect sessions.
"We march them over to the table and introduce them (to the agency officials)," Pyburn said.
Vet Connect will call an agency and make an appointment for a veteran, and even give him or her a bus ticket to get there, if needed.
The organization buys furniture for veterans who get set up in subsidized housing, as he did just two years ago.
And they counsel those vets on how to budget their veterans benefits to make rent and utility payments and buy groceries before "you go running out and doing what you want," he said.
Vet Connect was seeing about 10 veterans a week when it started, and now hosts about 40 new and returning clients on Tuesday mornings.
"It's rewarding work," Pyburn said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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