Tony Hodges first walked into the Midwest Veterans Closet about a year ago in need of a suit because he was worried he would not have one to wear if his father died.
But the Army veteran said there is so much more that Mary Carmody and the Midwest Veterans Closet in North Chicago has provided to him.
Hodges received clothing, as well as many of the furnishings in his North Chicago apartment. Carmody helped him to find a job. And after traveling three hours each way by bicycle and bus to get to work, he now has a car thanks to the Midwest Veterans Closet, a nonprofit organization that provides veterans with clothing, furniture and so much more to help them get back on their feet.
"It means a lot to me because it's a motivating drive to continue to stay on the right path," Hodges said. "It's been a good journey from when I first met Mary. It's unfolded right before my eyes. My goal is to stay on the course and continue to do what I'm supposed to do, do my footwork. But I know I have the backup, I have the help."
Hodges also now helps the organization, most recently by hanging up coats that were collected for veterans by area police and fire departments.
"He's taking care of his family now, and he feels really good about taking that responsibility now," Carmody said. "I tell him, 'You are going to be a role model for veterans and for black men, too.'"
Carmody started the Midwest Veterans Closet in 2014 because she saw a need to help veterans, a population that sometimes may not ask or know where to go for help.
"This has never been my lifelong dream, but it's what I can do to give back after they've given so much to so many," she said. "We're able to sit here peacefully and not worry of being hurt because of them."
The organization started in a trailer in Wadsworth, but the space quickly filled with donations, clothing, household items and furniture -- all to be given free to veterans.
"I realized that people always wanted to help veterans. They just didn't know how," Carmody said.
The Midwest Veterans Closet moved in September 2014 to a building in North Chicago, a few blocks north of the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center. Once a week, veterans are bused to see Carmody and get what they need. The building also is open weekdays to help those who can get there by other means.
Army veteran Gary Spicer said he encountered rough times after losing his job. He tried to commit suicide. He lost much of his belongings and a place to live. But after entering a program at the Lovell Center, he's doing better. He proudly shows photos of his Waukegan apartment, the bed and dressers, the table in the kitchen, all provided by donations to the Midwest Veterans Closet.
"I'm so grateful," Spicer said. "I probably would have nothing in my apartment. I'd have an empty apartment, but she kept calling me saying I've got something for you."
Carmody also is working to collect items to send to officers who are deployed around the world. Called Boxes for the Brave, Carmody collects snacks, magazines and full-size toiletries, and veterans pack up the care packages. Some have been sent to Cuba and Kuwait.
"We want to send them something they can use right away, share and have fun," she said.
The Midwest Veterans Closet also wants to give hope. Within the living room, veterans can receive computer training. Through connections Carmody has developed, she helps veterans to develop a resume and search for a job.
"Our goal is the whole picture. It's not just here's a coat and see you later," she said.
The organization provides a place to enjoy a hot meal and conversation. Donated by the Winthrop Harbor VFW Auxiliary every Thursday, volunteers set up a grill and prepare burgers and brats for the veterans.
Sharon Marsh, president of the Winthrop Harbor VFW Auxiliary and a retired Navy nurse, met Carmody after bringing a donation to the Midwest Veterans Closet. She, too, sees the difficult reality veterans face. She chokes up when she recalls 10 years ago seeing a man whom she realized she had worked alongside in the Navy. He was now homeless.
"When I saw the Closet, I saw this was so real, so tangible and it had such a significant impact," she said.
Carmody explains that she stays frugal to keep the organization running. No one makes a salary. Zion Solutions has helped financially by adopting the Midwest Veterans Closet, but she urges monetary contributions are needed to help pay rent, utilities and operating expenses.
Midwest Veterans Closet will hold a Boot Scootin' Country Boogie from 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Antioch VFW. Featuring music and food, proceeds will support the mission.
The Midwest Veterans Closet is at 2323 Green Bay Road, North Chicago, and is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday or by appointment. For information, visit www.midwestveteranscloset.org/home.html.