JACKSONVILLE, Fla — "A weekend of community" is how the founder of a group to help Northeast Florida's veterans describes a weekend-long event.
Veterans Village of Northeast Florida is hosting a Stand Down retreat to connect veterans to resources and provide a sense of community. All veterans are welcome, but they are especially focusing on helping those who are at-risk or homeless.
Starting Friday veterans who register will be picked up by buses in five counties and be taken to North Florida Christian Camp in Keystone Heights for the three-day event.
"The main goal is to make our veterans feel dignity again," said Sharon Lynn Unger, founder and CEO of Veterans Village of Northeast Florida. "Make them feel like they're part of the community."
Unger says she wants the veterans to feel like they're at a retreat. She says the first day there will be haircuts and clothing available. There will be mental health resources, specifically for those experiencing PTSD or sexual assault trauma.
Over the weekend Unger says there will be job counseling, s'mores, and plenty of holiday festivities including a Christmas dinner served by local restaurants.
She says the goal, aside from connecting veterans with resources, is the camaraderie.
"When veterans are in the military they actually have that camaraderie, that brotherhood, that family," Unger said. "And when they get out, they kind of go their separate ways and they don't have that. So what we want to do is give the veterans a sense of community again and find out if there are things we can do to help them. They may not know of a resource that we may know that can give them what they need so they can move to the next step of their lives."
Unger has big plans to create an entire veterans village, as her group is named.
"The goal of the village is to create 125-acre community," she said.
This long-term goal, which she hopes if completed in under a decade, would have many homes as well as community centers such as a cafeteria, woodworking building and dog park. Unger says it would also have a secure section for female veterans who experienced military sexual trauma.
Unger began fundraising for the veterans village in 2019 and although it won't be a reality for a while, she says the feeling of community starts this weekend.