Bess Cohn Humanitarian Award Nominee - Battle Tested

Veteran Helps Former Soldiers In Desperate Need Of Assistance

Howard WeisbergOutside Fort Myers, FL, a community of about 85 American military veterans lives together. But it's not in a neighborhood with houses or even in a rehab facility with easy access to medical care. Instead, they've made their home outside in the woods behind a church, surrounded by scant shelter and using sleeping bags or, if they're lucky, old cots to get some shut-eye.

Howard Weisberg, owner and manager of Specialties Unlimited (asi/331399) in Fort Myers, has done his best to alleviate the veterans' situation, largely by donating promotional products to the group.

Weisberg has been in the industry for 33 years, selling everything from Waterford pens and T-shirts to notepads and keychains, but only became aware of the homeless community recently. "It was about a year and a half ago," he says, "when two women came to the Jewish War Vets and told us how they make hot meals once a week for these guys in the woods, as well as for other homeless people who come for food. They asked us for donations, so I went through all the samples I had. It was about 30 or 40 hats, shirts and totes. I'm thinking, at night, when it hits the 30s, how do they survive? So I thought I would donate any extra clothes I had."

Then, Weisberg realized he potentially had access to a treasure trove of free samples within the industry. "At ASI Orlando, I took a chance and asked some of the vendors if they'd be interested in donating samples, maybe misprinted ones," he says. "The response was great. Neet Feet (asi/73525), for one, sent us 38 cartons of footwear samples." Weisberg also seeks out blank or misprinted shirts and sweaters, and even toothbrushes.

As a disabled vet himself, Weisberg felt compelled to help the men in any way he could. He explains that the official statuses of the homeless vets vary, from dishonorably discharged to disabled, and they don't allow civilians to wander into the area because it could become "a dangerous situation."

To distribute the items, Weisberg and other local veterans gather at the church near the veterans' woods and hold stand-downs, a military term meaning a relaxation from readiness or alert. "In this case, they come out from the woods and we'll talk to them and give items away," he explains. "They're allowed to take anything they want. Sometimes there are expensive outdoor boot samples available. Vantage Apparel (asi/93390) gave us new shirts. I also gathered stadium cups and caps at ASI Orlando. Veterans pick first, and then we give the leftovers to the general public. Every last bit of it goes."

In addition to the veterans' community, Weisberg volunteers in several support groups. For one, he is president of the Southwest Florida Ostomy Support Group. An ostomy is a surgical procedure in which an opening is created in the body for removal of waste material into an external pouch.

Weisberg explains that initially, living with an ostomy can be frightening. "You wonder how you're going to take care of yourself, and how to make sure you don't contaminate your body and cause UTIs," he says. "But there have been 700,000 of these surgeries in the U.S. alone, and we support each other."

As with his other charitable endeavors, the help Weisberg gives to the homeless group hits home. "I feel bad for those living in the woods. I just can't envision it," he says. "That might have been me if I didn't have a support group. Someone's got to help them."