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One of the greatest gifts that we receive is one that comes largely from those we do not even know—the opportunity to live safely in a free society. It’s a gift we are graced with every day in all we do and that we indulge in every time we set foot outside our door. Our way of life comes from the sacrifices and hard work of those who have served in our military, as well as our fire and police departments. In recognizing how much they’ve given to us, it’s a perfect time of year to give back to them for what they have done and continue to do.

Make a Difference

Everyone has the power to make a difference for someone, and expressing thanks in a way that is simple and focused can be more effective than trying to be part of something large or expensive. Bob Orzel and his wife, Amy, have hosted active duty sailors from Great Lakes Naval Station at their Lansing home on Thanksgiving several times. Those who are stationed far from home are often not able to travel and be with their loved ones for the holiday. The Orzels provide a meal and a homey environment for some young, homesick recruits who are missing their families and a home-cooked meal.

“I know what it’s like to be on a military base away from your family on such an important family holiday. November 1987, I was in San Diego,” Bob says. “We give these men a warm place to relax and a home for the holidays to enjoy themselves.” His family has developed lasting relationships with some of their visiting sailors and they continue to keep in touch.

Jim Atkinson, service officer with the Porter County Veterans Service, says there are many ways to make a difference in the Region with numerous organizations that you can get involved with and donate to. Sometimes businesses are able to also think outside the box and do meaningful things, like Culver’s of Valparaiso did. The restaurant recently dedicated a parking spot to veterans, the first to do so in Porter County, according to Atkinson.

Showing Thanks

At St. Mary’s School in Crown Point, an annual event honors any veteran who would like to come. The St. Mary Catholic Community School Veterans Day Program started 10 years ago and it has gotten bigger every year according to school principal Tom Ruiz.

“The veterans arrive and are greeted with cake and coffee and gather in the cafeteria while students gather in the gym. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts lead a procession with colors to the gym where they walk into a standing ovation from the entire student body and all our staff. It’s such a neat thing to see. We have a guest speaker and the band plays the songs for each branch of the military and we ask them to stand,” Ruiz says. He says they often have war veterans from Vietnam and World War II who really appreciate the gesture. About 75 veterans attended this year.

In Lansing, a group called “We Stand with Blue” holds an appreciation luncheon in December for first responders as well as public works, including all support staff. “We receive donations from the community at large to put this event on,” says Michael Gaffney. “It’s put on and maintained by a group of Lansing residents whose only purpose is to show our thanks and support for all our first responders and what they do for our residents on a daily basis.”

A Lansing pub and eatery, J.J. Kelley’s, offers a free dinner to all veterans at a Marine Corp birthday celebration each year in November. The gathering includes a short ceremony where the youngest and oldest Marines present cut the celebratory cake.

Giving Opportunities

Bob Carnagey, a Vietnam Veteran, is a former employee of the National Guard who helps military veterans with employment placement. Carnagey says that potential employers may not realize the benefits of employing those who have spent time in the military. “These are people who are already trained in leadership and specialties, but they don’t equate directly to civilian jobs. Their experience shows they are very trainable,” he says. “They don’t shy away from tough work and are greatly trained in logistics and leadership roles. Companies need to realize they are absolutely ready for those kinds of roles.”

Knowing how much talent and potential veterans can show when given the opportunity, Carnagey urges employers to give those who have spent time in the military a chance to use the skills they have learned. “Realize they need to be given a hand up, not a handout. All they need is an opportunity to move forward.”

Veterans Café in Merrillville is affiliated with a transition home in Gary housing 31 veterans. Several of the employees are veterans themselves and a portion of the proceeds generated by the restaurant go toward assisting homeless veterans.

Giving Respect

As president of Hammond’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 51 Auxiliary and the mother of two police officers, Judy Hamer says that the biggest thing the public can do to help support officers is a simple show of respect.

“You have to respect the uniform and understand that they put their life on the line every day. They kiss their wives and children goodbye and have no idea if they’ll come back—and they live with that every single day. It doesn’t make a difference if you live in a small town or a big metropolitan area,” she says. “I think the biggest thing is to just pay them respect.”

Raising Funds

Numerous organizations and businesses in the Region hold events to raise needed funds for charities that benefit veterans. A first-time event was held this year to help fund programs for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Breaking Down the Barriers: Salute to our Veterans, a police-escorted, non-stop motorcycle ride, veterans’ vendor fair and dinner was held in October at Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa in Michigan City, raising $37,000 for PTSD programs from Porter-Starke Services, Combat Bike Saver and Empowering Patriots. The programs will help veterans, as well as their families and friends recognize, understand and obtain resources to treat PTSD, which affects an estimated 30 percent of men and women who have spent time in war zones.

“Douglas Biege, LaPorte attorney and member of the Guardian Riders, and I created this event when we recognized the need to support veterans programs in Northwest Indiana. These programs not only teach family and friends about PTSD but also how to support and get help for loved ones who are affected by it,” says Jack Elia, Blue Chip assistant general manager.

Prompt Ambulance has hosted a cooking competition among chefs at regional health care, nursing home and assisted living facilities for several years. For the past 3 years, the beneficiary of funds from the event has been Honor Flight Chicago, an organization that takes World War II and Korean War veterans on a one-day flight to Washington D.C. to see the nation’s monuments and war memorials.

Bringing Generations Together

“The Manteno Veterans Home Pre-Super Bowl party was originally conducted by the South Suburban Chapter of the Marine Corps League,” says Chuck Murach, a leader with Boy Scouts in Lansing. “They had a substantial number of members that were World War II, Korea, and Vietnam era vets. They conducted fundraisers throughout the year to help fund this effort and had continued to do so for approximately 25 years. Their numbers declined over the years and Lansing Scout Troop 276 was approached to provide assistance at the event. The detachment's numbers have continued to decline and the troop has provided resources to continue the event. It remains a joint venture.”

Scouts go in personally to bring the residents from their rooms to the hall for the celebration, where they supply a meal and have raffles. “The reactions of the vets who reside there has been tremendous. Many of them are so happy to be able to talk one-on-one to the scouts about their service and many times about the times they spent in scouts. Their applause and appreciation of the scouts posting the flags and leading them in the pledge has been very heartwarming,” Murach says. “Many of the people don't really want their pictures taken in wheelchairs, but I have witnessed some wonderful interactions between the vets and scouts. I feel that this event is definitely a high point for the residents and has proven to be a very meaningful experience for the scouts.”

Interact in a Positive Way

Very often, interaction between the public and police or firefighters occurs at a time of distress. The only time they may get to know an officer or firefighter is in the midst of an emergency or crisis. Take time to attend events that allow you to interact in a positive way.

Each year during fire prevention month in October, many area fire departments hold open house events where the public can come in to learn about fire safety, but it also presents a great opportunity to interact with these public servants outside of an emergency situation. It’s also a perfect chance to offer your gratitude or encourage your kids to do so, which can be expressed with a few words, a drawing or even something more elaborate, like a catered meal.

Munster, for example, hosts an open house event where families can watch a car extraction, watch a live burn, learn how to use extinguishers, take a fire truck ride and win prizes. A little education on how to prevent catastrophes or react to them also can make the job of a firefighter a little easier.

International Firefighters’ Day is also observed each day on May 4, and it is an appropriate day to show some appreciation to your local firefighters.

In recent years, there have been heightened tensions between the public and law enforcement and showing appreciation for police officers in the community is more critical than ever. Interacting in a positive way is crucial to establishing a relationship where law enforcement are respected and trusted. National Night Out events happen each year in August across the Region and provide an opportunity for the public to talk to officers in a relaxed environment. Attending a citizens police academy locally can also give the public a better understanding of what the job of a police officer entails.

National Police Week takes place during the week of May 15 annually and it’s a time when departments, state government and communities honor fallen officers who died in the line of duty. It is a poignant time to reach out to officers in the area with cards and gestures of thanks for risking their lives on a daily basis.

Showing Support

Pete Dragojevic, owner of Safe House Bar and Grill in Crown Point, hosts about a dozen motorcycle runs to benefit all first responders each year with a huge event held on the square in August. “I have military and police in my family and grew up around it a lot; that’s why I’m so die-hard about giving back,” he says.

The August event encompasses the entire square with a DJ and hundreds of motorcyclists, bagpipes, and a 21-gun salute. His business donates the food, and all proceeds go back to charities related to military and first responders.