ST. CLOUD — An area veterans organization is using its new home to cater more specifically to female veterans with the addition of the Lady Veterans Boutique.
St. Cloud Stand Down was formed in 1998 by four Vietnam veterans, St. Cloud Stand Down President Bob Behrens said. The organization went from warehouse to warehouse, but a gift from the Clifford Beck family estate made it possible for the organization to buy the campus it occupies on 33rd Avenue North, just across from the former Electrolux site, and open the St. Cloud Stand Down Clifford Beck Veterans Resource Center in fall 2019.
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Stand Downs are typically events aimed at providing resources to veterans, and St. Cloud Stand Down has spent years hosting an annual expo. But moving into the building has allowed the organization to expand its offerings to veterans, especially those at risk, experiencing homelessness or simply in need. They provide clothes and necessities, a free haircut the first Thursday of the month, a meeting place for various veteran organizations, and a connection between veterans with other organizations and state programs.
In 2019, St. Cloud Stand Down served 935 veterans.
“Whatever a veteran needs, man or woman, this is the resource center for them,” Behrens said.
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A dedicated space allowed St. Cloud Stand Down to expand the hours it serves veterans, from a few twice a week to Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The building also means the organization has the space to implement more specific efforts to help women veterans. This includes the Lady Veterans Boutique, established about a month ago.
Kerri Schwegel, herself a veteran, is chair of the Lady Veterans Boutique. Schwegel served in the Air Force during the Gulf War.
When male veterans come to the Stand Down for clothes, they can walk through an outbuilding behind St. Cloud Stand Down full of winter coats, work pants, surplus Army clothes, new tennis shoes and socks, suits and more. But Schwegel said women have different needs, and Stand Down wanted to address those.
Schwegel and other volunteers spent about a month sorting out a space inside the Stand Down facility that flows more like a store than a warehouse. Clothes are grouped by type and use (jeans here, professional wear there) and displayed with care.
For all veterans, everything is free.
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Schwegel said in her experience working with veterans, most women veterans tend to fall into a caregiving role.
“They’re not thinking of themselves,” she said.
Mary Jo Pine, a veteran who does work with St. Cloud Stand Down, said a good majority of those utilizing St. Cloud Stand Down were males. She is not certain female veterans learn about Stand Down as a resource for them, too, when they leave the service.
“Traditionally, people don’t (associate) Stand Downs with females,” Pine said.
But as more women join — and eventually leave — the military, it’s time to make sure St. Cloud Stand Down has space for them, Behrens said.
“It’s time to recognize the lady veteran and say, ‘hey, you’re part of this veteran community,” he said. “What can we do to help you?’ ”
There are more offerings for women, including a nail salon, offering appointments twice a month, and massage chair, Schwegel said. This program will eventually expand to offer nail care for all veterans, but will begin focused specifically on women.
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The boutique is in the soft opening stage, and will have its grand opening early next year.
“Hopefully we can get those ladies to identify and come forward and say, ‘I am a veteran, and yes, there are things that can help me,’” Schwegel said.
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