By Elsie Walker
It started when Ray Chimileski, of Califon, read a newspaper article in 2000. The story was about a homeless Vietnam veteran living under a railroad trestle in Dover. Chimeileski and two friends decided to see it for themselves.
“We had never seen homeless vet before,” he said. The trio wanted to help, and upon finding him, asked the man what they could do. “We listened,” he said.
Chimileski noted that rather than just give the man things, they asked what he could use specifically. They were given a list of items, which they bought nearby and put in a backpack. This act became the first of many and out of it grew a non-profit organization, Operation Chillout. With a core group of volunteers and donations and support from other organizations and individuals, Operation Chillout helps homeless veterans all year round.
Today, Operation Chillout operates in New Jersey, Northeast Pennsylvania, and its newest location opened in 2016 in Rhode Island. Its N.J. headquarters is in Long Valley. Its website address is http://operationchillout.org and the contact number is 908-509-1462. It also has a rapid response team for homeless veterans in immediate need: 609-619-0861.
Chimileski, executive director of Operation Chillout, notes that it has been estimated that if one were to take the people who have been helped in New Jersey by Operation Chillout, and lined them up holding hands, that line would reach from Long Valley to Morristown, about 22 miles. Last winter, 1,500 backpacks, patterned after the first one given out 17 years ago, were distributed and this summer 40,000 bottles of fresh water have been given out. Chimileski notes that there are approximately 30,000 people homeless in New Jersey and that one in every five is a veteran.
Throughout the year, Operation Chillout is out in impoverished areas identifying the homeless population. As its winter project, it collects items and makes deliveries to places where the homeless gather, such as soup kitchens. This is when it gives out backpacks filled with warm clothing, toiletries, survival gear and information about local resources. In the summer, it collects and gives out cases of bottled water, T-shifts, and baseball caps. While some might understand the dangers of the cold for the homeless, what they might not realize is the dangers of living on the streets during the hot summer with no ready supply of fresh water. Chimileski noted that could be life-threatening to the homeless.
Operation Chillout’s footwork is done by a core group of 12 senior members who are quick to note that they couldn’t do it with the support of volunteers like scouts, college students, churches, the VFW, etc. and individuals who step up with monetary donations, give goods or do fundraisers. Information on items needed by Operation Chillout for winter backpacks and where to donate them can be found on its site.
In addition, Operation Chillout has a Rapid Response Team, a boots on the ground type of team, which addresses immediate needs brought to light by calls to the rapid response line. Tony Destafano, of Hackettstown, a retired Major in the U.S. Army, is the National Homeless Vet Outreach Coordinator for Operation Chillout. Destafano gave an example of a rapid response call.
The organization got a call from someone who knew of a homeless veteran who had served in Afghanistan, living outside in Elmwood Park. Suffering from PTSD, the veteran was staying outside, as in his mind, he was still deployed and he had a certain parameter to patrol. Bringing along with him an Afghanistan war veteran, Desafano went to the homeless veteran in need. They talked with the homeless man and were able to get him to come with them to get something to eat. Desafano shared that he has PTSD and so could relate to what the homeless veteran was going through. Also, Destafano knows of resources available to these veterans that they may not know about and helps them in that area. For example, they were able to get the homeless veteran with PTSD into a VA facility where he could get the care needed.
Destafano notes that he and his wife, Naulchavee, help add a special touch to the PTSD area of that VA facility once a month: a special meal. They alternate with the Knights of Columbus Council 10419 in providing it, with Destafano’s wife working hard in making theirs home-cooked.
In addition to their other projects, Operation Chillout is involved in building two tiny homes in New Jersey, with the help of volunteers, to help get homeless veterans off the streets. One will be in a veteran’s community in Cumberland County and another will be on a trailer in North Jersey and provide temporary housing while a veteran gets on his feet.
Even with all that Operation Chillout has accomplished, still more needs to be done.
“The [homeless vet] problem continues to grow,” said Chimileski.
To donate to the Tiny Home Build project or to find out more on how to help Operation Chillout:
Go to http://operationchillout.org.
For donations to Tiny Homes go to email@example.com Select ‘TINY HOME BUILD.’
To contact Operation Chillout: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 908-509-1426.
Donations by check can be sent to: Operation Chillout Inc. P.O. Box 353 Long Valley, N.J. 07853.