Donations pour in for Vets moving to Old Main - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Donations pour in for Vets moving to Old Main

Erin Olson with inspirational message

Erin Olson shows some of the inspirational placards that will go to Veterans moving into Old Main. The placards are part of large welcome baskets Olson has assembled.

By David Walter
Tuesday, March 2, 2021

When Veterans move into Old Main, the cupboards won’t be bare, and the bedrooms won’t be empty.

Thanks to efforts by a variety of groups and individuals, those Veterans will find many of their essentials already provided:

  • Military Outreach USA has donated 40 mattresses with box springs and bed frames.
  • The Junior League of Milwaukee is giving gifts bags that include welcome notes along with dish towels, cleaning supplies, hot pads and treats.
  • Erin Olson of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation has gathered items ranging from shower curtains and garbage cans to blankets and soap, to be included in welcome baskets for each of the 101 units.
  • Members of the West Suburban Quilters Guild of Brookfield have created handmade quilts for the Veterans. (Click here for the story.)

“Our goal is to turn these apartments into homes … and provide some comfort for the Veterans so they have some things of their own,” Olson said.

Jane Bartlett of the Junior League agreed.

“We wanted to do something to welcome Veterans into their new homes,” she said.

In March, the historic Milwaukee Soldiers Home and surrounding buildings are slated to open as permanent housing for Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

The project includes Old Main, which opened in 1867 as one of the three original Soldiers Homes established by President Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War to provide homes for disabled Veterans.

Also included are the Administration Building just south of Old Main, three nearby duplexes and a separate single-family home on the campus.

Vacant since 1989, the Milwaukee Soldiers Home has undergone significant renovation in the past 18 months, led by Alexander Co. and general contractor JP Cullen.

As the project has nears completion, groups and individuals have been stepping up to do their part.

Welcome baskets

Olson’s project was born from her work with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, which was part of the fundraising arm of the renovation project.

old main welcome baskets
This photo shows some of the items to be included in welcome baskets for Veterans moving into Old Main.

The project piqued her interest, and about a year ago she began pursuing the welcome baskets collection outside of work.

“When you move into a home, you need things like a garbage can, shower curtain, blankets, etc.,” she said. “So I offered to do a collection and fund drive.”

Reaching out to friends, families and colleagues via social media, Olson was able to collect some $5,000 worth of items that will be gathered into the 101 welcome baskets.

Collected in a laundry basket will be soap, bath towels, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, kitchen towels, bath mats, pot holders, conditioner, combs and a variety of other home essentials. In addition, each basket will include a card offering encouragement and inspiration.

She also collected books, puzzles, DVDs and games to be included in common areas of the buildings.

“It was all by word of mouth,” she said. “People were so happy to be able to do this. It was definitely a community effort.”

And the project will be ongoing, she said.

“It’s not just one and done. We hope to come back with other items, including artwork, plants and other things once people are settled. We hope this is just the start.”

Donated beds for Old Main residents

Military Outreach USA donated 40 mattresses, box springs and bed frames which will go to Veterans moving into Old Main.

Forty beds

Military Outreach USA is a charity group that provides beds to Veterans in need. It works with churches, community groups and other organizations to raise the funds to purchase the beds and other move-in essentials.

The Milwaukee VA reached out to Military Outreach to provide the beds, and the group was eager to answer the call.

“We’re so excited to do this,” said Sue Brown, executive assistant for Military Outreach USA, noting the group works with Veterans exiting homelessness.

“Normally we do this on a small, as-needed basis. This is 40 beds. That’s a big thing for us,” she said.

The group, based in Northbrook, Ill., started by serving Veterans in the Chicago area. It has grown over the past 11 years to include nine states.

Gifts and essentials

Bartlett said she was looking for a project for the Junior League when she found an article online about Old Main.

old main gift bags
Shown is one of the gift bags Veterans will receive when the move into Old Main.

It was a perfect fit.

“I was looking for something to help Veterans, plus we have a singing group that sings at the Milwaukee VA once or twice a year,” she said. “When I pitched this project to the group, it won out unanimously. They loved we were doing something with local Veterans.”

The League has about 20 members, Bartlett said, and they’ve been pitching in to fill the gift bags and also provide welcome notes for the Veterans, thanking them for their service.

“This feels great,” she said. “It’s nice to have a small part in such a big, impactful project.”


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