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Serving those who served our country: Meet the North Carolina woman who found her purpose in helping homeless vets

In 2008, a stroke and subsequent traumatic brain injury (TBI) nearly killed Stacey Buckner. Today, she says her miraculous road to recovery led her to the outreach work that has become her life’s mission.

Through her program, Off-Road Outreach, Buckner has helped more than 1,000 veterans in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Using her own off-road vehicle – a Jeep that has accommodations for water, heating, and cooking – Buckner provides mobile showers, laundry services, and meals to homeless veterans in her hometown, known for its proximity to Fort Liberty, a military installation of the US Army.

Buckner also connects veterans to support services and often shares with them her personal story of struggle and survival.

“I was released from the hospital in a wheelchair,” Buckner said. “I still wasn’t completely walking on my own. I had a stutter. No one wanted to hire me.”

Buckner worked to regain her speech and motor skills, and with the help of an organization that supports people with disabilities, she was ultimately placed in a job at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center. Her day-to-day tasks included calling and reminding veterans about their upcoming appointments.

As she learned more about issues facing veterans in her community, especially those experiencing homelessness, she began reaching out to those in need in her spare time.

“On my way to work, I would drive past the strip mall. And I noticed that there was a lot of homeless people that lived behind there,” Buckner said. “I brought them hygiene packs, food.”

One day a woman refused a hygiene pack, and her explanation was eye-opening for Buckner.

“I was actually burdening her because she’d have to carry it around all day,” Buckner said. “She said, ‘I’m homeless. Where am I supposed to shower?’”

An outdoor and off-road enthusiast, Buckner had existing modifications to her Jeep for camping and recreation purposes, including a shower hookup. In that moment, “it was like God spoke to me,” Buckner said.

“I wrapped a tarp around my awning and set up the shower. … It was life-changing for her. Just to see her go from someone that looked so defeated to smiling and to feeling so good about herself, it was just like, ‘I have to do this more often.’”

‘It takes boots on the ground to find them’

Soon, Buckner was offering weekly showers to those living in homeless camps. Many of them, she learned, were veterans.

According to the most recent count by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 33,000 veterans were experiencing homelessness in the US.

“A lot of these veterans, they’re deep in the woods. It takes boots on the ground to find them and meet their needs,” Buckner said. “Gaining trust amongst the homeless veteran community is really important.”

Since 2015, Buckner has been doing just that. Each week, she travels to hard-to-reach places to serve veterans who are unwilling or unable to access services. Without judgment, Buckner asks what she can do to help them.

“There should be no homeless vets, period,” Buckner said. “I am to a lot of them their only family.”

Buckner offers immediate services like showers, food, and clothing to anyone living in the encampment. For homeless veterans, she also provides wrap-around services and works with volunteers – whom she calls “community ambassadors” – as well as local nonprofits to connect them to medical care, employment, housing, and suicide prevention programs.

“We have a huge suicide problem amongst our veterans,” Buckner said. “They need that camaraderie after they get out of the military. Even though I’m not a veteran, I do have mental health issues related to my TBI (traumatic brain injury), so I can relate. Finding your purpose and peer support is huge.”

Expanding to provide fresh food and more

Off-Road Outreach helps about 50 to 75 homeless veterans a week through its services, Buckner says, and often teams up with local businesses to offer other services like haircuts and to distribute items like mattresses, socks, and shoes.

“We have shoe companies that will donate nice shoes to our homeless vets,” Buckner said. “It really makes a difference when you’re homeless because you’re doing a lot of walking.”

Buckner also launched a fresh food initiative called Veggies for Vets that serves about 50 veterans a week through a community garden. In tandem with veteran-owned farms, Buckner also distributes fresh produce to combat food insecurity and health issues. She does not take a salary for the work and credits her own disability for giving her new abilities.

“Coming out of the hospital with a traumatic brain injury, you don’t know your purpose anymore, you’re a completely different person,” Buckner said. “This is a lifetime process of recovery. I’m just thankful that I’m walking, and talking, and being able to inspire people, and give them hope, too.”

Want to get involved? Check out the Off-Road Outreach website and see how to help.

To donate to Off-Road Outreach via GoFundMe, click here

This post appeared first on cnn.com

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