What do you do when the military declares you unfit for work due to post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions resulting from six years in the US Marine Corps? For Dionisio Cucuta, the answer was clear: create a nonprofit organization that helps other veterans develop their skills for success in civilian life.
Its Englewood-based Disabled Combat Veterans Youth program began in 2010 by providing young soccer players, many of whom are from diverse and economically disadvantaged communities, a mentorship program that has helped them develop skills for the world of football. job.
More recently, the association has focused on growing food insecurity among veterans and the general public, and now distributes free food to thousands of families in Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties, especially those who have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cucuta’s work serving the hungry in North Jersey has now been recognized by Points of Light, a national non-profit organization founded by former President George HW Bush, which will present him with an award on September 28. The group promotes the efforts of individuals and organizations that contribute to the improvement of issues such as hunger, education and water quality.
The recognition will be the latest in a series of awards, including being named Hometown Hero during the pandemic by U.S. Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-5th) to congratulate Cucuta for the work Cucuta does for veterans and others. But he said the new commendation means even more to him than any of the others.
“I did not expect that”
“The tears kept falling from my eyes,” Cucuta said, in an interview with NJ Spotlight News. “I wasn’t expecting this, I hadn’t been looking for this. I had no idea what the points of light were. All I wanted to do was just help people. I am a born again Christian; God made me do his job, and I did his job, and look where I am.
Veterinarians have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, as many receive fixed military pensions or disability benefits and are unable to work due to injuries sustained while on duty, and therefore may struggle to make ends meet. Cucuta said.
This means that food aid has become an important source of aid for the military and other families struggling with low incomes, he said.
With the delta variant of the coronavirus creating a new wave of COVID-19 cases and the prospect of a new influx of veterans of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Cucuta said he expects demand to food aid is imminently increasing. There are approximately 400,000 military veterans in New Jersey, according to the US Veterans Administration.
Cucuta himself receives $ 3,500 per month from the US Veterans Administration as disability compensation after his service as a cook in the Marines from 1977 to 1983. He served in Japan, Lebanon, the Philippines and at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where he said he was sickened by drinking contaminated water.
Life after the army
After leaving the military, he worked as an executive chef at several restaurants in New York and New Jersey, and then took up chef positions in the corporate sector. But when he was ruled by the VA as unfit for work due to severe PTSD and other conditions about 15 years ago, he decided to start his nonprofit organization to help others in the world. need.
“I didn’t want to sit there and vegetate, so I might as well give back,” Cucuta said.
Even though his disability exempts him from income and property taxes on his Teaneck home, $ 3,500 a month doesn’t go far in Bergen County, and he knows other vets are struggling to pay their bills. , especially if they have large families.
“You are going to need help,” he said. “It hurts me inside because I know what they’re going through. No veteran should have to go through this.
Cucuta’s all-volunteer group distributes food to pantries and directly to residents after obtaining it from Table à Table, a non-profit organization that collects prepared and perishable food that would otherwise be thrown away by major retailers, including Walmart and ShopRite.
As demand increased during the pandemic, Table to Table has increased the food supply for the Cucuta group by about six times. It now distributes about 33 pallets of food per week to some 3,000 families, about 10% of which are military veterinarians, he said.
The partnership complements food aid provided by New Jersey’s major food banks and hundreds of pantries run by churches and other community groups to feed food insecure people, whose numbers have grown during the pandemic.
Demand is expected to increase again
For the Cucuta group, demand slowed to around 8,000 families in August, from around 12,000, he said. But he expects the amount of food distributed to rise again in September to 15% above July’s level as the delta variant “swells”, additional unemployment benefits end and children return. at school.
He fears another spike in January as a state ban on evictions for non-payment of rent during the pandemic is set to end. This should put more pressure on people’s budgets, forcing some to turn to food aid groups for help.
For Charmaine Jones, a Navy veteran who lives in Lodi, Bergen County, food packages from Cucuta’s group and other donors are a big help in feeding her two children, ages 11 and 12. . is an expense for growing children, ”she said.
Jones, 47, a single mother, collects two bags of food a month from the Great Falls Rotary Foundation Military Assistance Pantry, which she helped start in 2018. She said the number of vets receiving Help for pantry food increased to about 80 from about 10 when it opened.
She said vets often have a range of issues that lead them to seek food assistance, including disabilities, PTSD, unemployment or even homelessness. “They are going through a difficult time, so whatever help they can get, they are taking advantage of it,” she said.
Cucuta, 62, hopes advertising his Points of Light award will help him raise money to buy a farm somewhere in northern or western New Jersey where he can grow organic food, use it to feed the hungry and teach young people how to grow their own food.
For now, he recognizes that his work helps vets and others who struggle to get food on the table.
“I can reach these families and these young people, veterans and seniors on fixed incomes,” he said. “They’ve worked their whole lives and they’re still struggling. Let us help them.