Tom McKenna sat in the back room of his storefront near Minnehaha Park on a recent morning, just a few blocks from the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center.
All around him were the reminders of the things his organization, Every Third Saturday, has built up over the past decade to help struggling military veterans:
Sketches from the weekly art club where vets explore their artistic sides. A coffee klatch dedicated to the Air Force veteran who died by suicide after nine deployments to the Middle East. And the warehouse filled with items — socks and underwear, clothes and Red Wing boots, hygiene supplies and sleeping bags, suits and ties and soap and blankets — that McKenna hands out to any veteran who shows up.
McKenna is an earnest, square-jawed, 45-year-old Marine Corps veteran whose scruff is starting to show a little gray. He’s a native New Yorker who moved to Minnesota two decades ago emotionally scarred from a stint in Rwanda during the genocide and on military disability after his convoy was ambushed in Kurdistan. But he’s is in a good spot now: Emotionally stable, no longer suicidal, and giving back to other veterans who are struggling.
“It’s my calling, like it or not,” McKenna said as his service dog, Mack, an American bulldog who helps with him post-traumatic stress disorder, nuzzled up to him. “This is where God has put me.”
In the 10 years since its inception, Every Third Saturday has touched a significant slice of the often overlooked population of homeless veterans. It has collected and distributed nearly 50,000 items and in 2018 served more than 1,000 veterans, nearly all of them Minnesotans.
This month, with winter fast approaching, is typically the busiest. The third Saturday in November is when the organization hands out brand-new winter boots and thermal underwear for every veteran who walks in. Last year, it donated 108 pairs of boots on that day. On Nov. 23, it will follow up by hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for 100 veterans.
Just as this modest storefront — a few ramshackle rooms and a small warehouse — has helped so many down-and-out veterans over the years, it’s done wonders for McKenna, too.
“It’s given me the opportunity to be with my tribe,” McKenna said. “It’s allowed me to let my guard down just a little bit, to allow people to help themselves. Because that’s what we do. We just walk alongside them, that’s all. We don’t do it for them. Not everyone’s a success. But to see veterans who make that U-turn from downward spiral to healthy productive life, that’s when I’m like, that’s it. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Underwear and socks
McKenna’s crooked path to Every Third Saturday was shaped by moments of trauma and epiphany.
One came in Rwanda at age 20. He was there for only four days to deliver United Nations food shipments. That was enough to permanently scar him.
“What I see when I close my eyes and think about that is not people being murdered,” he recalled. “It’s seeing the look in women’s eyes and kids’ eyes. They were so in shock. They didn’t know if we were there to kill them or to help them. No one can prepare you for that, seeing what humans can do to other humans. No one can prepare you for seeing humans at their base evil.”
After returning to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, he started drinking heavily. He got in a fight at the enlisted club. He was lost.
Then came the birth of his first child, and more trouble. The labor was difficult for his wife, Jessi — his son was coming out shoulder-first. The tense atmosphere at the hospital that day triggered his PTSD, and he grabbed the doctor in anger. The tension ended when a police officer escorted McKenna outside. The cop, another veteran, told him to cool off for 20 minutes, then brought him back to the delivery room in time to see the birth of his son.
At that point, standing outside the hospital in the January freeze, McKenna had an awakening.
“Then and there I put it all away: the drinking, the PTSD, the military, everything,” he said.
He’s only taken a drink once in the 21 years since.
Another turning point, and the moment that brought McKenna to start Every Third Saturday, came a decade ago as McKenna drove a Coca-Cola truck at an intersection in Arden Hills. There, he saw a man with a sign: “HOMELESS VET, PLEASE HELP.”
“And I didn’t even make eye contact,” McKenna recalled. “I could feel his eyes, sitting at that light.” He thought to himself, “Please turn green, please turn green.”
It stuck in McKenna’s mind: Another struggling veteran, someone not all that different from himself, and McKenna had just ignored him.
The next day, the same man was at the same intersection. This time, McKenna got out.
“What’s going on, man?” McKenna asked. “What do you need?”
McKenna figured he’d give the man $20.
“You know what I need?” the man replied. “I need some clean underwear and some clean socks. I haven’t changed my underwear in a week.”
McKenna drove the man to a Walmart and bought him underwear and socks.
He never saw the man again.
“But that answer — ‘underwear and socks’ — just floored me,” McKenna said. “How can anyone not have clean underwear? It’s just a given, right? We’re in America, greatest society in history. Everyone has clean underwear. Even more so, it taught me what clean underwear means to a person. The indignity. It lowers your humanity. You know you’re dirty. You feel lesser than. And if that feeling sticks around long enough, it starts to eat away and chip away at hope.”
Fueling hope, not simply handing out life’s necessities, is the spiritual core of the organization McKenna founded.
He started by packing 10 backpacks with socks, underwear and hygiene items and making a monthly loop from his home in Apple Valley around the Twin Cities and passing out the goods to homeless veterans.
Someone in his wife’s Bible study connected McKenna with a Wisconsin nonprofit called the Hands Foundation. First came quilts. Soon, McKenna, then working for Disabled American Veterans, was getting truckloads of clothes from Wisconsin. He started driving a trailer to the VA parking lot on the third Saturday of every month and opening it up for veterans. Eventually, he got a storefront.
He’s aiming to open a new building across the street this month. By constantly passing the hat at meetings of organizations like the American Legion or VFW, McKenna has drummed up thousands of dollars in donations for the project, which is expected to cost nearly $500,000.
‘Sense of community’
As McKenna told the story of his charity’s origin, Chris Hvinden, a street outreach worker for Ramsey County Veterans Services, walked into Every Third Saturday.
Earlier that morning, Hvinden had run into a homeless veteran living in the woods. It had rained the night before, and the veteran’s clothes were soaked through. Hvinden drove to Every Third Saturday, got a couple bags of dry clothes and shoes and took them to the veteran.
“Tom and Jessi are doing some incredible work, not only supporting the most vulnerable veterans who are suffering from homelessness and working their way through PTSD but to bring people together and create a sense of community,” said Andrew Johnson, the Minneapolis City Council member who represents the ward that includes the VA. “It’s really empowering and really healing. And it’s really incredible to see this grass-roots organization really emerging in this area where it’s so needed.”
Kurt Stanley was a 50-year-old homeless Navy veteran struggling with mental illness when he moved to Minneapolis in 2013. One winter, McKenna got him a warm Fubu coat. When Stanley had housing the next winter, he brought the coat back for another veteran in need.
“When you get depressed, you don’t want to meet with people, you don’t want to shave, you don’t want to clean yourself,” Stanley said. “It gets worse and worse until you actually want to kill yourself. But every time I get to Every Third Saturday, I get lifted up. I feel like a human being. They treat me like a human being.”
Every Third Saturday’s new space will be in an old auto shop. There will be room for yoga, a spot where their running group can congregate, and a patio with garden beds for veterans.
“I don’t know what comes next,” McKenna said. “But I’ve learned to stay out of the way and let God work.”