Donald Gagne was wounded in combat in Korea. He still has a tiny piece of shrapnel near his right eye.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Friday's picnic at the Elks Lodge was an informal affair. Plenty of food — salads, burgers, dogs and cookies — and some good company at the picnic tables set up under a tent.
But the attendees were also taking away more than just food and conversation. This first annual picnic was offering a "goodie bag" of wellness supplies and a gift certificate for each veteran who attended.
The outing was a collaboration between the local Elks Lodge 487and the Veterans Service Office at City Hall. The office's assistant Tina Samson said everything had been donated with the Elks as the main sponsor.
"I got tied up with Tina, and we got stuff from Elks and we brought it over to Tina so she could give it to the veterans," said Elks member and Vietnam veteran Tony Sacco. The lodge last year raised more than $1,000 that was used to buy gift cards for the veterans office to distribute. "She had stuff she gave to me, it turned into a sort of a little marriage that worked out well."
Sacco approached the Elks and told the organization what he had in mind. It responded with a $3,500 donation that Sacco used to buy 100 $35 gift certificates from the Big Y, Stop & Shop, Walmart, Dollar Store, Dollar Tree, Ocean State Job Lot, McDonald's and Cumberland Farms.
The Elks also supplied all the food; the CVS warehouse in Ludlow donated boxes of wellness supplies that were divvied up into bags full of soap, vitamins, bandages, compression socks and over-the-counter medications. Samson and her husband donated a children's bicycle made by the Bicycle Corporation of America that was raffled off.
Donald Gagne, an Army veteran of the Korean War veteran, and his daughter Susan attended the picnic.
Gagne was wounded with shrapnel, losing the sight in his right eye. "I was in the front lines," he said. "I was all over." His daughter said he spent six months in a hospital in Japan before being discharged.
"He wanted to go back in but they wouldn't let him," she said. "He was a sergeant and had a platoon ... he left those guys there but didn't want to."
Proudly wearing a service cap and his purple heart, Gagne doesn't remember much about his wartime experiences anymore but said he would go if called again, laughing that he could see well enough if maybe not quite shoot straight.
"I always enjoy picnics or parties, that's the first best thing they have," he said. "I take things as they are. If they need my help, I'm gone."
Veterans Service Officer Stephen Roy said the office has lots of donations come in, particularly sanitary goods like bandages that can be expensive for veterans. The office has a small commissary with those supplies and canned and boxed goods set up in the former judge's chamber at City Hall.
"They're proud. Sometimes they're too proud to take any handouts or anything," Samson said. "This is better. I like it like this. This is a great thing Tony did."
Mayor Thomas Bernard attended and pulled the winning name for the bicycle.
"I really appreciate the invitation to come over and spend time with our veterans today," he said. "I know that our Veterans Service Office does a lot of work but the Elks take this on as a project of service.
"It says something about the strength of our community."
Sacco hopes to repeat the event and provide more services for local veterans.
"The more you look at it, the more they need," he said of his fellow veterans. "They are worthy of what they get ... hopefully, we can do this again next year and again the year after because there's always veterans."
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