Operation Fetch delivers bags to homeless in Colorado

By Shelley Widhalm

The Surveyor

Hannah Vetorino of Berthoud needed a bunch of bags and backpacks to deliver food and supplies to the homeless through one nonprofit, but her husband accidently donated them to another.

In late January, Vetorino, a volunteer for Operation Fetch, placed a call out on Berthoud Community’s Facebook page to replace what Steve donated to Berthoud Habitat for Humanity. She collected 40 canvas and fabric bags and backpacks, which she filled and planned to help deliver to a homeless camp in Colorado Springs, alongside Lon Hodge, founder of Operation Fetch, which operates out of Pueblo and Chicago.

Courtesy photo – Operation Fetch volunteers, Hannah Vetorino of Berthoud, left, and Mark Racus help out with delivering bags to the homeless living in homeless camps in Colorado Springs. With them is Gander, a service dog that assists Lon Hodge, the nonprofit’s founder.

“The town came through,” Vetorino said, adding Steve didn’t know she was saving the bags and backpacks. “It was certainly a funny-argh moment when I caught him, but all’s well.”

Vetorino accompanies Hodge on two to three trips a year to deliver bags and backpacks to homeless camps in Denver and Colorado Springs. Her next trip likely will be in the spring; focused on tents, sleeping bags and food. She also would like to make deliveries to camps in Loveland but needs to locate them and doesn’t know of any in Berthoud, she said.

Hodge, a medically retired veteran of the Vietnam era with post-traumatic stress disorder and autoimmune mobility issues, started Operation Fetch six years ago after applying to Freedom Service Dogs of America and receiving a service dog named Gander. Gander: service dog, an 8-year-old male Labradoodle, has an incredible 226,000 followers on Facebook who follow the dog’s adventures.

“Shortly after he felt better, he wanted to give back to the community,” Vetorino said.

Operation Fetch provides a long list of services through Gander’s PACK, or Planned Acts of Community Kindness, including offering adaptive equipment to those with disabilities and bridging care for homeless veterans. The nonprofit also provides education and raises awareness about service dogs trained to assist those with PTSD and other visible and invisible wounds.

“We do anything that reduces the stress from trauma,” Hodge said. “We do whatever we can to help those people on a real micro basis, one on one.”

Hodge delivers bags in 46 states, primarily Colorado, Wisconsin and Illinois. He wants to reach out to the homeless who may not be able to get supplies from agencies or shelters, unable to go to them for anxiety and other reasons.

“We try to act as a bridge between them being in a homeless situation and them getting to services,” Hodge said. “We want to make sure they know who to contact and where to get benefits.”

Hodge, who works with 150 volunteers nationwide, is grateful to volunteers like Vetorino.

“She’s actually fearless. She goes right into camps and meets with the homeless folks and sees what they need,” Hodge said.

Vetorino and Hodge met nearly four years ago at a Freedom Service Dog conference in Denver, which she attended to meet up with one of her friends. She became a volunteer with Hodge’s nonprofit a year later.

“It’s something that has really spoken to me, because he happens to be an advocate for disabilities, especially invisible disabilities,” said Vetorino, who is on oxygen and has been on disability insurance for 25 years. “It takes me out of myself and out of my own head. I realize with the stuff I’m going through with my health issues, I’m doing good, I’m standing. I want to give back to help others.

Every month Vetorino visits Sam’s Club looking for clearance sales and discounts to purchase food, clothing, cold-weather supplies and toiletry items and puts them in the bags. She also assembles bags with feminine supplies and women’s clothing items, adding a pink ribbon.

Vetorino and the other volunteers make deliveries by parking their vehicles and opening up the trunks to start giving out the bags. The homeless often are hesitant at first but then will come once they realize there is an offer of help, she commented.

Vetorino continues to seek bags for the homeless and is receiving assistance from the Berthoud High School library, which houses a makerspace involved in what is called Make for Good community service projects. Students are making bags out of T-shirts that they will fill with washcloths and toiletries to give to Vetorino’s efforts.

“It makes you feel good that you’re helping somebody,” Vetorino said. “There’s an adrenaline high knowing you put some smiles on some people, that you showed them love.”

Vetorino seeks donations of bags and supplies, including small tents, sleeping bags, blankets, clothing and non-perishable and sealed food. For details, email her at hvetorino@gmail.com or via private message on her Facebook page, Hannah HaVeto Bead.

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