Faith, an Armed Forces therapy dog who’s handler Carol Janssens has volunteered with the Hero’s Cafe since it started, licks Vietnam veteran Alvin Marsten’s face at the Verdant Community Wellness Center on Nov. 26 in Lynnwood. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Faith, an Armed Forces therapy dog who’s handler Carol Janssens has volunteered with the Hero’s Cafe since it started, licks Vietnam veteran Alvin Marsten’s face at the Verdant Community Wellness Center on Nov. 26 in Lynnwood. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Purchase Photo

At growing Hero’s Cafe, veterans care for fellow veterans

Volunteers serve military veterans each month in Lynnwood, an event that has exploded with popularity.

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.

Rintamaki’s adopted son, Steven Rintamaki, was killed by an improvised explosive device in 2004, in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

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.

Myra Rintamaki sets up the American Gold Star Mothers’ remembrance table before the start of the Hero’s Cafe at the Verdant Community Wellness Center on Nov. 26. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Myra Rintamaki sets up the American Gold Star Mothers’ remembrance table before the start of the Hero’s Cafe at the Verdant Community Wellness Center on Nov. 26. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald) Purchase Photo

“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.”

Volunteer Chris Szarek (right) holds up the Hero’s Cafe banner as Steve Pennington climbs the ladder to finish hanging it before the start of the Hero’s Cafe at the Verdant Community Wellness Center on Nov. 26. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Volunteer Chris Szarek (right) holds up the Hero’s Cafe banner as Steve Pennington climbs the ladder to finish hanging it before the start of the Hero’s Cafe at the Verdant Community Wellness Center on Nov. 26. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald) Purchase Photo

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.

Aaron Slattery (left) opens cans of soup for lunch as volunteers prep food during the Hero’s Cafe at the Verdant Community Wellness Center on Nov. 26. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Aaron Slattery (left) opens cans of soup for lunch as volunteers prep food during the Hero’s Cafe at the Verdant Community Wellness Center on Nov. 26. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald) Purchase Photo

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; chutton@heraldnet.com. 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 ckr_satx@yahoo.com.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Navy now plans to send 3 more ships to Everett

The destroyer USS John S. McCain is the latest with plans to move here within the next 13 months.

One dead, three hospitalized after Highway 522 crash

An East Wenatchee woman died after a head-on collision Saturday night in Monroe.

Man suspected of child abuse in Hawaii arrested in Shoreline

He was wanted for investigation of seven counts of child sexual assault and abuse in Maui.

New grants aim to retrain aerospace workers

County program offers up to $250,000 per business to help workers acquire new skills.

Marysville man charged in stabbing, trapping of girlfriend

After allegedly keeping her in the car for hours as she bled, he dropped her off at the hospital.

Police: Lake Stevens political sign thief assaults witness

The suspect, 66, removed signs of two Black candidates, then attacked a man who confronted him, police said.

Humpback whale hit by Mukilteo ferry, Chip, is presumed dead

The whale, age 3, has not been seen since being struck Monday. His companion was later seen alone.

Lynnwood police chief retires; city planning for replacement

Chief Tom Davis was a career cop who put an emphasis on building relations with the public.

Most Read