LYNNWOOD — If only 25 veterans showed up to eat, sip coffee and swap stories, Myra Rintamaki would’ve considered the Hero’s Cafe a success.
Almost three years ago, the monthly cafe opened to bring veterans together with the hope they could rekindle the camaraderie they felt in the service. Rintamaki, a Gold Star mother, expected the number of guests would dwindle to a small, core group. And that would be OK.
Yet over the past 2½ years, the event has grown to the point it’s running out of room. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, Rintamaki becomes the admiral of a kitchen cooking for more than 150 people — veterans and their families — at Verdant Health in Lynnwood.
The meals are free, on the honor system, for anyone who says they’re a veteran, or a member of a military family, or willing to sit and listen to living history.
“There’s an encouragement to share their story, then somebody else at the table will feel more comfortable sharing theirs,” Rintamaki said.
Her main crew in the kitchen includes another Gold Star mother, a U.S. Army veteran, a Coast Guard veteran and a civilian who saw Rintamaki posting fliers one day, and wanted to pitch in. Baked goods for breakfast and cookies for after lunch are donated by a group founded by Donna Padilla, a North Bend mother of a Marine who was wounded in 2004.
All of the volunteer time is donated. There’s no hard agenda, aside from the singing of the national anthem by Angelita Shanahan; a ceremony for birthdays; and a briefing on veteran news. All veterans are welcome, even soldiers with a dishonorable discharge.
“You come in, you say you’re a veteran, welcome aboard,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Gary Walderman, an organizer who was an intelligence officer in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Both combat and noncombat veterans get respect.
“Everybody has gone to that place and done their job, no matter what it is,” Walderman said. “We assure them that it doesn’t matter what you did, you did something that Uncle Sam needed you to do, and you were in the fight.”
Attendees come from all military backgrounds. A few fought in World War II or Korea. Many served in the Vietnam War. The younger veterans — who served in Iraq, Syria, Bosnia, and elsewhere — tend to be the most willing and able to volunteer their time.
Many headlines in recent years have talked about veterans’ struggles to adapt to civilian life after war. Around the time these cafe meetings started, a widely reported statistic showed 22 veterans killed themselves each day in the United States.
“Sometimes we’ll see a veteran who comes in and you can see that things aren’t going well,” Rintamaki said. “The nice thing about all the volunteers that are there, they can generally spot that person and get him or her connected to a resource, either with a benefit, or a health need, or something more immediate.”
One of those who dove into volunteer work was U.S. Army veteran Richard Merle Clark, Walderman said. He convinced Clark to come to the cafe in late 2017. To Walderman, he was clearly disgruntled.
“He lost a lot of that inner anger, and he became probably one of the top volunteers that we had,” Walderman said. “ … He had the passion, if he saw something, he went full force to get it.”
Clark dedicated much of the past two years to serving veterans at the cafe and in other ways. He died unexpectedly in August at age 72. The volunteers hosted a memorial ceremony for him and his family.
Cafe volunteers also reach out to veterans in senior centers, and those living without shelter. One was a veteran sleeping outside with a girlfriend, in a fenced area outside Verdant Health, by the garbage.
“They came in and we got them showered,” Walderman said. “We gave them food, we had personal hygiene kits, we always have them in case somebody needs something — shaving, deodorant, that kind of stuff.”
Snohomish County is home to more than 50,000 veterans, according to the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We would love to touch every one of them,” Walderman said.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.
Snohomish County Gives 2019 is a special news report from The Daily Herald, spotlighting volunteer work in Everett and neighboring communities.
Find the special section inside today’s edition, which includes ways to give in time and through donations.
How to help
The Hero’s Cafe is open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of the month, at 4710 196th Street SW. The next meeting will be Dec. 17.
Right now, the greatest need for volunteers is in the cleanup crew. Learn more by emailing Walderman at email@example.com.