It’s 2 o’clock on a summer afternoon and R.J. Kelly’s phone is ringing. A homeowner in Newhall is calling and his message is short and to the point. The caller’s backyard nectarines are ripe and ready to be picked.
R.J. hangs up, then calls a few of his friends in the Veterans Advocacy Network and schedules a time for them to gather up their ladders and buckets for an afternoon of fruit picking. This is no pleasure excursion, although the vets do find ways to make the task fun. These nectarines will be taken to the retired Marines Canyon Country office where they will be divvied up and eventually find their way to local veterans’ kitchen tables. On this particular day it’s nectarines, however Kelly has a whole network of local homeowners with backyard fruit trees, small orchards, and large vegetable patches who make similar calls throughout the year that end up in similar harvesting outings.
In addition to the distribution of fresh produce, Kelly’s group also makes deliveries of fruits and vegetables in the form of homemade pies, cakes, and breads that are baked by church members and other charitable community volunteers.
The project began five years ago with a letter to Kelly’s fellow Sand Canyon residents that began: “Are you tired of spoiled or rotten fruit laying on the ground for days; stepping in the fruit and tracking it everywhere; fruit attracting squirrels and coyotes? Let our veterans harvest your trees and give the excess fruit to needy veterans, homeless veterans, and senior veterans, as well as the Children’s Veterans support program and the Food Pantry.”
The positive response was overwhelming and word quickly spread to home growers in other parts of the SCV. Kelly’s group found that they had more fresh fruit than they could handle. This led to a meeting with the College of the Canyons veterans program and its Culinary Arts Program and the creation of the Veterans Plantation Co-op. The joint project focused on gardening, growing, harvesting, and turning the fruit and vegetables into products that not only went to individual veterans, but could also be marketed with profits benefiting various veterans’ services.
As impressive as the produce co-op is, it is only one facet of the services provided to Santa Clarita Valley veterans by R.J.’s non-profit organization. Kelly founded the Veterans Advocacy Network, or VAN, when he began serving as a mentor to the young veterans returning from tours of duty in the Middle East.
In their confused, and sometimes troubled, faces he saw a mirror of his own feelings and experiences when he was a young veteran trying to adjust to civilian life after serving two tours of duty in Vietnam.
“I knew how hard it was for me and my buddies to compartmentalize our war experiences from the civilian life that we had returned to – a life that was now vastly different from the one we left behind when we enlisted,” said Kelly. “We had no idea of the services and resources available to not only meet our unique social, but medical needs as well.”
His generation’s negative experiences were compounded by the unpopularity of a conflict that was never declared a war and was often muddied by the Washington establishment’s political ideologies and ambitions.
“Nine-eleven was an attack on us, on our soil – it left no doubt about why our young people were fighting,” continued Kelly. “It also created a whole new patriotism, much like was felt in World War II, so the military and these returning warriors have been viewed with more understanding and compassion. And yet, many of them still had the same problems that we experienced in readjusting to civilian routines and pondering decisions about the future. I was one of many older veterans in our valley who wanted to make their adjustment easier and more positive.”
As a prominent Santa Clarita Valley businessman, Kelly was a natural to form the Veterans Advocacy Network and foster its outreach. Besides making community contacts through his CPA office and his elected position on the Castaic Lake Water Agency, he has also served on the board of the SCV Chamber of Commerce. Community activities include past commander of the DAV, past and current commander of the Canyon Country VFW Post 6885, and past president of the SCV Veterans Memorial Committee.
Likewise, fellow members of the Veterans Advocacy Network are often involved in similar Santa Clarita Valley volunteer organizations, all with the goal of providing returning vets with information and resources available to meet their educational, housing, and counseling needs. Their services supplement government programs and work with businesses and educators, as well as other business and charitable organizations.
The volunteers have been key in welcoming and providing mentoring services for the new residents of the Habitat for Heroes housing project off Centre Pointe in Saugus. The tract, a Habitat for Humanity development, will be finishing its final building phase around the end of November, comprising 78 homes in all. The Veterans Advocacy Network, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, has already planted fruit trees in the southeast corner of the development and is planning to add a community garden with 30 plots.
“We are really excited about this current project,” concluded Kelly, “It gives the veterans and their families a way of supplementing their grocery lists as well as providing for valuable family interactions.”
For more information about the Veterans Advocacy Network, you may call R.J. Kelly, 661-510-1025.