MANATEE -- Bailey Hughes, 9, and her little brother, Xavier, 6, romped with someone's dog on the floor of the Goodwill Manasota Veterans Service Office after an open house Monday evening.
"Adorable," an adult in the room said, watching the joy on the children's faces as they hugged the little dog.
The scene was bittersweet because the dog wasn't theirs. Their pet had perished in a fire that destroyed their house in Sarasota, along with all its furnishings and family keepsakes.
Xavier and Bailey and their U.S. Army veteran parents, Todd and Jessica Hughes, came to the Goodwill Veterans Service Center at 8490 N. Lockwood Ridge Road, just north of University Parkway, to receive a $2,895 check to help tide the family over after their devastating loss.
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"We're not going to stop helping," C.J. Bannister, director of the Veterans Services, told the family as they prepared to leave.
Veterans helping veterans is a mantra at the Veterans Service Office, the first of its kind operated by Goodwill in Florida.
Bannister, veterans service advisers Heather Hopewell and Don Hill, and veterans career development facilitator Edwin Robinson are all military veterans.
They assist veterans from Manatee and Sarasota with emergency cash for housing, food and education.
Bannister and her team work with veterans and their families to assess needs, develop assistance and match them with community resources.
They also work with vets to help match them with jobs and point them toward treatment programs, if needed. "This is a 12-month program. We follow up with them throughout the year and stay with them. We don't just give them a handout," Bannister said.
The center now sees about 10 new veterans a week. There is a great need to serve war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, but about half the clients are from the Vietnam War era.
The center also offers a therapeutic yoga program for veterans and their families to help them cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other issues facing veterans.
"We do this free for the veterans and their families. The blocks, the mats, everything is provided. You don't need to register. You can just come," said Harriet Roberts, director of the Karma Yoga Outreach Program.
The Goodwill veterans program has emerged as a leading service provider and key player among agencies assisting vets in Manatee-Sarasota.
For information or to offer a donation, call 941-355-2721, ext. 451, or visit experiencegoodwill.org.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.