A partnership between Ocean State Job Lot and the YMCA of Greater Providence has resulted in an initiative, “Supporting Those Who Served,” which aims to provide free YMCA memberships to military service veterans.
The initiative began with a multitude of donations from local and national businesses and was underscored by a $50,000 donation as seed money from Ocean State Job Lot, which was officially handed over in giant check form during a press conference at the Kent County YMCA in Warwick on Wednesday morning.
“There’s no prosthetic for a broken spirit,” said Steven O’Donnell, CEO of the Greater Providence YMCA, quoting Al Pacino from “The Scent of a Woman.” “Our mission is mind, body, spirit, so it couldn’t be more of an advantage for us to take advantage of corroborating with this group of people, led by Ocean State Job Lot, and making sure we put those people in here.”
The memberships would be for one year for veterans of all service branches, and would cover all activities, classes, summer camp enrollment and other programs normally associated with a Y membership, including, which O’Donnell pointed out as particularly important, daycare services.
“Your membership pays for so much more that you can save on the other end,” O’Donnell said. “You don’t have to get a babysitter because it’s built in and it’s not an extra fee.”
O’Donnell said that the initiative began after a conversation with Marc Pearlman, CEO of Ocean State Job Lot, who said that he was unaware of the charitable endeavors undertaken by the YMCA.
“He said you guys have a marketing problem,” O’Donnell said. “And he’s right, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to tell people we do. We do more than jump in the pool, lift weights, play basketball, it’s a community-based organization that thrives on community, and that’s where we want to make sure we’re going.”
Representing Ocean State Job Lot was its executive director, David Sarlitto, who shared a couple of stories in which he interacted with veterans that reaffirmed his dedication to funding charitable endeavors towards them.
One such story involved talking with a 92-year-old Navy veteran during an Honor Flight to Washington D.C. who had been a part of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines during World War II. The veteran showed him his pair of grass-woven slippers that he had worn during the horrific forced transfer of POWs.
Another involved a sendoff event at Otis Air National Guard Base, where he witnessed soldiers being deployed for what was, in some cases, their third tour overseas.
“I thought I couldn’t have ‘thank you’ enough,” Sarlitto said. “I felt like one of those little clanging monkey clowns, because starting on Saturday and all the way through the day on Sunday, I must have said ‘thank you’ a thousand times.”
After a phone call to his dad where he said he felt badly because he couldn’t do anything besides offer his gratitude, Sarlitto said his father told him, “You can never say thank you enough, but if you’re ever given the chance, back it up.”
“So don’t thank us,” he said to those in attendance. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to back up the words that Job Lot very, very much believes.”
O’Donnell said that in addition to the starting $50,000 donation launching the initiative, which is this year’s “Operation: Thank You” program taken on by the Y, they have also already raised an additional $1,000 from people walking into their seven facilities across Rhode Island and donating towards the cause, by way of “Veterans Giving Tree Walls” at any YMCA branch in the state.
“Every dime that’s donated will go back to those veterans and will pay for their membership to go to the YMCA,” he said.
In addition to the health benefits associated with a Y membership, O’Donnell said that the sense of community, financial literacy services and health programs will be able to make a real difference for veterans who are struggling or going through a tough time.
“The whole idea is if they are struggling financially, this is something you shouldn’t have to worry about. And then after a year if you’re struggling, we’ll re-evaluate it,” he said. “Our goal is, during that year, you can get healthier and we can teach them about jobs skills. We have diabetes programs, we have cancer programs, we have heart programs and we have the gym. We have Zumba classes, we have camps, we have walking trails – there’s so much to offer at all the Y’s that we want to make it available to them.”