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Local AFSA chapter donates bikes to vets in need

Tech. Sgt. George F. Roach, a security forces member here and Vice President of AFSA’s Tucson chapter, steadies one of the 26 bicycles donated to Esperanza En Escalante, a local transitional housing program for homeless veterans.

Tech. Sgt. George F. Roach, a security forces member here and Vice President of AFSA’s Tucson chapter, steadies one of the 26 bicycles donated to Esperanza En Escalante, a local transitional housing program for homeless veterans.

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Take a moment and consider the pride that comes with serving one's country. Imagine the camaraderie and sense of belonging servicemembers feel while fighting together with a solitary purpose.

Now try to comprehend living alone, without a home or clean clothes, constantly fighting both hunger and substance abuse. No pride. No friendship. No sense of purpose.

Many of our fellow veterans have experienced both circumstances, and several hundred of them live right here in Tucson. Fortunately for many homeless veterans, there is hope for a more secure future. That's where Esperanza En Escalante steps in.

In 1990, EEE received permission from the U.S. government to use a 19.6-acre parcel of federal land - a block away from the Wilmot gate here - for the purposes of housing veterans while they transitioned back into a self-sufficient lifestyle. Since then, EEE has collaborated with the local elements of many organizations, including Vietnam Veterans of America, Southern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System, Society of Military Widows, the VA Medical Center, and the Air Force Sergeants Association.

Recently, Airmen from the Security Forces Squadron here combined with AFSA and donated 26 bicycles to the residents of EEE. "It's a small way for AFSA to help out the community, especially our fellow veterans and their families," said Jim Crissinger, current president of AFSA's Division 12, which includes more than 9,000 members in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Betty Slaybaugh, Executive Director of EEE, expressed her gratitude to the Airmen who assisted, and she explained that having a bicycle to ride gives the residents a basic sense of freedom that she believes is extremely important to their state of mind.

"The secondary thing is that we're all believers that exercise is good for folks," Ms. Slaybaugh said. "With a bike they're getting physical exercise they weren't getting before." She added that the EEE staff has noticed measurable health improvements in the residents who have used a bike regularly.

According to Mr. Crissinger, AFSA first donated bikes to EEE in 2005. Earlier that year, a local AFSA member noticed the large American flag proudly displayed on the street side of EEE's property. Curious, he decided to stop and find out what went on there.

"When he found out what they were all about, he asked what he could do to help," Mr. Crissinger explained. "They said they could use a couple of bikes and, well, a couple of bikes turned into a lot more."

Tech. Sgt. George F. Roach, Vice President of the AFSA's Tucson chapter and a security forces member here, took the lead in organizing the 2006 donation before the holidays.
"It's all about giving back to the veterans," Sergeant Roach said. "We're taking the time to give back to what they've already given us. Just knowing that there are veterans - whether they're from Vietnam or Iraq or whatever - who don't have a roof over their heads or food on their table is disturbing to me."

With a little help from local bike shops and word-of-mouth within Division 12, AFSA was able to gather and give away 19 bicycles in 2005. After increasing the number of donated bikes in 2006, AFSA hopes to continue the tradition for years to come.

The new method of personal transportation is just one of many ways homeless veterans get help through the transition program. Ms. Slaybaugh said sometimes all they need is a ride to the VAMC for a regular exam or to pick up medication. Other times, one of EEE's three masters-level social workers have to help them to reorganize priorities and renew their life skills.

No matter what kind of help residents need during their stay, Ms. Slaybaugh said that once they complete the program, they can count on never going without shelter again.
"Anyone who completes our program does not return to homelessness," she said. "They will have some income. They do not have to return to the streets.

"Besides that, we're kind of like a 'way station.' Life's journey has been really hard for these folks with physical or mental issues. We help get their lives back on track. If you're living on the street, you have to worry every day. Here you don't have to do that."

To find out about volunteer opportunities or donation needs at Esperanza En Escalante, call Betty Slaybaugh at (520) 571-8294.