It’s a Wednesday morning and coffee’s on in the basement of the United Congregational Church in Norwich, where two dozen veterans have taken their seats at folding tables arranged in a large rectangle.
They listen to announcements — an upcoming veterans salute taking place at Dodd Stadium and news from a representative of Congressman Joe Courtney’s office; hear from a new attendee who served in the Navy for precisely 19 years, 8 months and 6 days; and tell a few jokes.
The regular jokester is absent this week, so Penny Kabisch-Horn steps up and gamely delivers a couple of well-received anecdotes, including a sly one involving a drill sergeant.
Eastern Connecticut currently has three of these veterans coffeehouses, in Norwich, Danielson and Stonington; a fourth, for younger veterans, is in a pilot program at Eastern Connecticut State University.
The coffeehouses offer veterans a time to visit with friends, hear the latest news, listen to speakers on topics ranging from nutrition to therapeutic animals, and learn where to go for services.
“I look forward to Wednesday morning,” said Steve Holmberg, a Navy veteran who also graduated from Norwich Free Academy – something he shares in common with a number of the coffeehouse attendees at the Norwich location.
It’s the same for most of the group, which has grown steadily since the first meeting in Norwich last year. Many come each week, while others drop in when they can.
William J. Strong, Jr., an Air Force veteran, said he’s been to the coffeehouse a few times. On this Wednesday, he told the group that he would miss the following week’s meeting because he was scheduled for surgery in the Boston area.
“I wanted to make sure I came down and saw the gang before I went in,” Strong said afterward.
The coffeehouses are run by TVCCA’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), a group of volunteers 55 and older, and are partially funded by the Corporation for National & Community Service.
About three years ago, the Corporation said it wanted the RSVP programs to include a work plan that assisted veterans, said Jennifer Johnson, RSVP program director. The coffeehouse idea was launched with the help of local veterans who were active in the community.
“It turned out the coffeehouse really met the need,” Johnson said. “So it became a place where veterans could come and meet with service officers from the VA and from all of the local organizations that help veterans connect with services and benefits. … It’s just become a place where they come for companionship and for information and access to services.”
Said Kabisch-Horn, a disabled Army vet and commander of the American Legion in Norwich: “We all have a common experience that brings us together. They talk about their military experience and I can relate to it, and I talk about my military experience and they can relate to it.”
John Waggoner, a Navy veteran and vice president of the Norwich Area Veterans Council, served aboard a ship with his brother and, like Holmberg, also graduated high school with a number of the attendees.
“Not only are we all veterans, we’re also old friends from way back,” Waggoner said. “It’s accepting to anybody. We try to make anyone who comes in feel welcome, because that’s what it’s all about.”
Waggoner said the first meeting in Norwich last November had about six or seven people and that the weekly meetings now consistently attract more than 20. He called it a “band of brothers,” — adding that he wasn’t trying to be “corny.”
“No matter where you served, you’re a veteran,” he said. “And you had to be there to understand what it was like. So it’s nice that we can get together. … And everybody has a good time. You can sit, you can talk, tell stupid jokes like they do.”
What makes the coffeehouses a success, said Marvin Serruto, is the camaraderie paired with practical advice.
“We get a lot of good information,” Serruto said, pointing to the representative from Courtney’s office as an example. “He’s a direct link, a direct hit — we talk military here all the time — it’s a direct hit to the congressman’s office. A direct hit to Washington, D.C.”
The coffeehouses include:
Norwich: 9 a.m.-11 a.m. each Wednesday at the United Congregational Church at 87 Broadway
Stonington: 8:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m. on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of the month at the Stonington Human Services Community Room at 166 South Broad St. in Pawcatuck
Danielson: 9 a.m.-11 a.m. each Tuesday at the Killingly Community Center, plus 7 p.m. on the first Friday of the month with entertainers, speakers, music and community talent
Pilot Program at Eastern Connecticut State University
All coffeehouses will take a summer break starting the last week in June, then will resume the first week in September.
About RSVP: The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program is seeking volunteers 55 and older to shop for or visit older or disabled individuals, deliver meals on wheels, tutor in schools, serve veterans and make referrals to other service to other community agencies. For more information on RSVP and/or the coffeehouses, contact Gina King at 860-425-6617 or firstname.lastname@example.org.