Benefitting the American Red Cross and Kristyn’s Closet
When the work you do gains you an affectionate nickname, you know you’re truly making a difference in people's lives. This is the story of Viviana DeCohen (Mama V), Commissioner of the Veterans Service Agency in Mount Vernon, New York, who oversees its resource program, Kristyn’s Closet. DeCohen’s dedication to helping Veterans through a myriad of ways has touched us deeply—and it’s why we’re so proud to feature her and her work for Kristyn’s Closet, a resource program for Veterans to get their feet back on the ground by providing donated clothing and shoes. Join us in supporting the cause, in partnership with the American Red Cross, by donating your gently-worn VB Jackets at a VB store near you. You’ll receive 20% off any full-price jacket in return. Here, we speak with DeCohen on her journey with the program and what giving back means to her.
What was the initial inspiration behind Kristyn’s Closet? After being sworn in as Commissioner of the Veterans Service Agency in Mount Vernon, New York, my very first phone call was from a Veteran that needed a suit for an interview that was taking place within an hour.
This was not just a matter of having nothing to wear in her closet, but a more desperate situation of having had all of her clothing discarded. You see, I was once that Veteran that lost everything, but the failing economy at that time had no resources for me—they were all “tapped out.” I knew at that moment that it was more important to establish a resource for Veterans, than having a sizable office to sit in. I met that Veteran at a local store, purchased a suit and shoes for her (she did get the job!), along with a few clothing racks. A few Veterans came in to meet me that afternoon and it became a unanimous decision to convert my office into a resource closet, and that it should be named after our former Commissioner, Kristyn Briez Reed, Veteran USAF—who always ensured that the many needs of our Veterans were met head on.
I posted about the closet on Facebook. My page consists of all Veterans and supporters, and within 3 days, we had a full-fledged closet with brand new clothing, shoes, and non-perishable food items. The Girl Scouts even made us an official Cookie Drop. As we put the last shoe on the rack, a Veteran came in with his discharge papers in his hand, in need of a pair of sneakers. His were dirty and torn with the sole separated from the shoe. The word about the work we were doing spread quickly, and in a month we had served over 150 Veterans. By the official ribbon cutting, Kristyn’s Closet had doubled that number, and today—just 5 months later—we are at 1,300 Veterans served. And I have to thank the American Red Cross for coming out and supporting us with full force—it’s brought me to tears.
What first brought you to the Veterans Service Agency? This position is appointed, and I just happened to be the recipient of an award for outstanding service to Veterans from a local women’s organization. The current Mayor, Shawyn Patterson-Howard, who had not announced her candidacy as yet, was there to support the other honoree. Mayor Patterson-Howard introduced herself to me and stated that she had just seen me on the news for a 9/11 volunteer event and that she was thinking about running for Mayor and wanted me to be her Commission for the Veterans Service Agency if she won. Well, she did win and here I am. I ensure food, shelter, clothing, education, benefits, and a dose of motivation as we continue to serve in our community.
Kristyn Briez Reed, Veteran USAF, at the ribbon cutting ceremony for Kristyn's Closet
What’s your single most memorable moment with the program? I get emotional with this particular memory…
A Veterans’ organization in NYC called to inform us that they were sending a Veteran who had lost all of his belongings, and was being housed with a room at their center. The next morning, the Veteran came in very early. One of our Veteran volunteers was with me and was eager to service our Veteran guest with coffee and a breakfast sandwich. We began sharing stories from bootcamp. Despite the era, the stories are all the same and bring laughter and comradery. As the day went on, we ordered lunch and the Veteran was ready to be fitted for a few shirts, slacks, and shoes. As he stretched out his arms to be fitted by his fellow Veteran, he began to cry. We asked him if he was alright and he exclaimed, “I feel like I am somebody in here.” And we all answered together, “You are, you are.” He remained with us until we closed, and because other supporters had come to be a blessing, he was the recipient of everything that we received. A week later, the social worker called and wanted to know what happened. She said, “Harold has returned a new person. He has been cheerful, participating in groups, and speaking of his unforgettable experience in the closet.”
What does giving back mean to you? For the Veteran—who has served God, country, and family—service is innate and service never ends. We always pay it forward and we always give back. That is why we volunteer in our community by serving others. I am affectionately known as Mama V because I am a giver of wellness, motivation and resources. I give back, never to get back, but to heal the world—one person at a time. That is what giving back means to me.