Loyalty, duty, service, and honor are the compass points of Jim Williams’ life. Williams is a self-described retired Navy man, Petty Officer First Class, and a Vietnam veteran. He is also the founder of Midwest Veterans Outreach and Store at 102A Strauss Dr., in Park Hills.
A visit to the store and time spent chatting with Williams causes one to quickly understand this is far more than just another area thrift store. The outreach and store exist to bridge a gap in meeting vital needs for veterans and the local community, cultivated with purpose from motivation that was ignited decades ago following the end of the Vietnam War.
Williams said the first thing most people offer when learning of his veteran status is the very common expression of gratitude, “Thank you for your service.”
He explained that it’s something very difficult for him to hear, as well as for others who served in Vietnam.
“It’s almost like we carry with us a certain brand of guilt from having served there,” he said. “We didn’t get a hero’s welcome — no parades or celebrations at the airport like the guys did when they came back from Afghanistan. When we came home from the war in Vietnam, people cursed at us, threw rotted vegetables — spit on us. We experienced so many displays of hate and disrespect that it’s hard to believe human beings could treat other human beings like that.
“You don’t forget things like that, and it’s part of why many veterans — especially Vietnam veterans — find it hard to ask for help when they need it. Being a veteran, I understand the needs veterans have. I took an oath — it’s important and guides me in how I live my life. Midwest Veterans Outreach (MVO) was created because of the treatment we got when we came home. I made a vow to do whatever I could to change it for whomever I could — try to make things better. I’ve been able to fulfill some of that vow through the MVO, and it’s become my mission to continue.”
Williams’ outreach efforts originally began in Jefferson County, but he relocated to St. Francois County due to a shift in the market and his belief that here patriotism was more prevalent. The store’s first home in the Parkland was Farmington, and the second and current location is in Park Hills.
A colorful display of flags at the store’s entrance represents each branch of the military with a special flag in remembrance of those who are either classified as missing in action or prisoners of war. The front half is filled with new military and survival items — hats, boots, apparel, equipment, decals, and flags. The back half of the shop is the thrift store operation where donated items are sold. Medical supplies and medical equipment are housed there and are available at no cost to those in need.
New visitors to the store are given a brief overview by Williams.
“We are a self-funded 501(c)3 not-for-profit,” he said. “We have a Missouri tax exemption, a charter number, and an IRS determination letter on file. The economy stinks and doesn’t show signs of getting better anytime soon, so we are proud to be able to sell good products at affordable prices. For those who are truly in need, we have free items available — food, clothes, personal hygiene items, and household goods. And right now, we have warm winter coats that have been donated. If you really need one and don’t have one, I can take care of that.
“Our mission is to assist any and all veterans, their families, and residents of the local community in any and every way possible. We provide resources, either in the form of information, transportation, food, medical supplies, and limited financial assistance. We provide referrals to programs for counseling for mental health issues, PTSD, and family or domestic violence. We have supplied household goods and services to relieve stress on families and veterans in crisis. Over the last 12 months, we have helped over 2,278 families either locally or through our national programs.”
An operation like MVO has specific operating expenses like rent and utilities, along with standard overhead and administrative costs. Williams personally shoulders those financial burdens and is adamant that any money generated through the store will go right back out the door to meet veteran and community needs.
“We are fiercely independent and are 100% self-sustaining because of the store, he said. “We receive no government funding and don’t apply for grants. We are tax-exempt, and there is never any sales tax added to your purchase price. The thrift store is our source of funding, and we have made great efforts to keep pricing very reasonable and affordable. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the store go right back out to meet the needs of veterans and the local community.
“We accept donations of clean, usable, resalable items to sell in our thrift store to fund our programs. Those donations count as charitable contributions at tax time, too. We are happy to accept almost anything except for mattresses and foundations or bed springs. If it’s not an item that is good enough for you to use or wear yourself, please don’t bring it to us.”
Williams also solicits donations from various corporate entities and the private sector.
He said, “We have some excellent corporate sponsors and supporters — Lowe’s in Festus, Mineral Area Office Supply in Park Hills, and W. W. Grainger — who all provide donations of new items we can sell or use here at the store. The Cowboy Church brings donations of food, hygiene items, and household supplies. We need more sponsors and supporters. Anyone with questions is welcome to contact me to talk about it.”
General inventory varies from day to day, depending on the intake of donations, but is always available at very affordable prices. Shelves might hold small kitchen appliances, inkjet cartridges, DVDs or VHS tapes. A healthy collection of books awaits readers, with each title priced at less than a dollar, except for cookbooks.
“Cookbooks are free,” Williams said. “Cooking is becoming a lost art, and it’s an important skill to have. Plus, it’s more cost-effective to make your meals at home — so you can get a cookbook here free and learn how to do it.”
Lowe’s in Festus is a valued corporate partner and a regular supplier of new items — often discontinued inventory from their retail product lines — that Williams transports to Park Hills by the trailer-load. Builders and those with an eye toward home improvement aspirations often descend on the incoming items before they can be unloaded. Extreme savings make satisfied repeat customers, which in turn generates needed revenue to provide assistance to those in need.
Williams relies on volunteers to help keep the doors open and lend a hand when needed to keep the mission moving forward.
“We have no paid help, everyone at the store is a volunteer and committed to helping individuals and families in need,” he said.
Financial contributions and proceeds from the thrift store go to help house, feed, and reduce costs on individuals and families after they are vetted and qualified for assistance through our programs.
This prevents misuse and the undeserving from taking away resources needed elsewhere. No personal information is stored or transmitted to an outside agency unless absolutely necessary.
MVO actively supports the Wounded Warrior Project, Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial in Perryville, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, BackStoppers, Amputee Veterans, and anyone in the area in need of assistance who lives in Jefferson, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve or Perry counties. Those requesting assistance should reside within 50 miles of MVO.
“People sometimes ask why we support those national organizations,” Williams said. “I tell them it’s because there are local people that receive services from those organizations, so it only makes sense for us to be a part of it.”
Williams spends a portion of his time planning fundraisers and marketing schemes to increase finances so MVO will be able to help more people. A chili cook-off is scheduled for Nov. 18 at the store. Entry fees will be collected from the cooks, and chili will be sold. Prizes and bragging rights will go to the winners.
“It’ll be a fun time for everyone,” Williams said. “It’s also a great way to raise funds and awareness about the work we are trying to do here.”
A different kind of fundraiser is ready to roll over the horizon in the form of a recently purchased school bus that has been christened The Veterans Express.
“There is a need for transportation to medical appointments and other places, and we can meet that need with The Veterans Express,” Williams said. “Then there are trips to places like the National Veterans Memorial in Perryville or the National Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks. People want to go to those places — and it’s important that they do — so providing transportation was a need we wanted to fill.”
Businesses can invest in the success of The Veterans Express and show their support for MVO by taking advantage of the mobile advertising opportunity when the bus travels or when it is parked at the plaza in Park Hills. Sponsors will have their company logo placed on both sides of the bus. Twelve-by-twelve-inch logos cost $150. Logos that are 24 x 24 inches will cost $250. Logos that are 36 x 36 inches will cost $500.
Sponsors will be encouraged to provide brochures and literature to be distributed on the bus. They are also invited to ride along with the Veterans Express to meet passengers and personally share information about their businesses. Sponsors will have other advertising bonuses, including mention in press releases and stories about the trips the bus makes, all of which will be included in the fee paid for inclusion in the program.
Williams sums things up nicely, saying, “If you know someone in need, send them in. If you are in need, then YOU come in. We have a 24-hour phone line to provide resources for emergencies and regular store hours to meet the needs of the community for non-emergencies. I can be reached here at the store by calling 573-722-4000. I can be reached after hours by calling 636-222-1489.”
To learn more about MVO, hours of operation and the newest inventory items, visit its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Midwestveterans.
Lisa Brotherton-Barnes is a staff writer with the Daily Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.