By Jessica Tuggle
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY - For one year, the Victory Center Military Store inside the Indian River Mall in Vero Beach has been turning camouflage into greenbacks to help Indian River County veterans and the nonprofit is just getting started.
John Darling, president of the Indian River County Veteran's Mall Foundation, said the store began last year with a goal to raise funds for newer buses to transport veterans to the VA hospital in West Palm Beach.
"We met that goal in six months," Mr. Darling said.
To help celebrate one year of being open, Tom and Cheryl O'Neill of Just Me 2 will perform in front of the store on Nov. 19 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Just Me 2 will perform several iconic numbers of the World War II era, including the Andrew's Sisters hit "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and Glenn Miller's "American Patrol."
The money for the buses was given to the Indian River Veterans Council, who partnered with the Indian River County Sheriff's Office to buy two vehicles at a good price, Mr. Darling said.
The veteran's council transports between 250 to 275 veterans from Indian River County to the VA hospital each month, so having safe transportation that could accommodate veterans with special needs was a must, he said.
The overall purpose of the store is to raise money to specifically help Indian River County veterans young and old, Mr. Darling said.
The military retail store, the first in the area, also sells military-themed memorabilia, hats, T-shirts, flags, patches and pins. Recently, the store added toys to their stock. Special-ordered gifts are also available from four catalogs, Mr. Darling said.
Fifty percent of the profits from the store go to a dedicated fund for major veteran needs, such as the buses, and the other 50 percent go toward other charitable organizations that help veterans, such as the Knights of Columbus, the Vietnam Veterans of America and the 82nd Airborne, he said.
The store is entirely staffed with volunteers, so the funds to the other nonprofits are proportional to the hours worked by their volunteers.
Earlier this year, the store was featured in an editorial by the Washington Times, which praised the community effort to help veterans.
Something that makes the store stand out is the "R 'n R Bunker" behind the retail area.
Veterans and visitors can relax, have a complimentary cup of coffee, watch TV, use free Wi-Fi and even use Skype to communicate with military friends or family overseas.
"Instead of sitting on a bench in the mall waiting for their wife to finish shopping, the veterans can come in here and relax and talk," Mr. Darling said.
Ed Britt of Sebastian, a U.S. Army veteran, is a regular volunteer in the store.
He said the camaraderie between volunteers, many of whom are veterans, and the veterans who stop in and visit, is wonderful.
"It was 32 years of my life spent in the service and I took care of my soldiers when I was there. I feel the same obligation to take care of the soldiers who come home," Mr. Britt said.
Current store hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mr. Darling said he was looking for hours to be extended and expanded to Sundays if he could get enough volunteers to man the store.
A website for the Victory Center is still under construction and will be announced at a later date.
For more information about the Victory Center Military Store, call (772) 226-5316.