Hero’s Cafe director on a mission to help veterans in need

Gary Walderman speaking at the Edmonds Veteran Plaza in 2019. (File photo by Larry Vogel)

When the Hero’s Cafe began, it was a chance for local military veterans to meet once a month for over a cup of coffee. After three years, Director Gary Walderman has helped evolve it into a widespread support network for veterans in need.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hero’s Cafe would invite veterans to gather to eat breakfast, share stories and enjoy the company of their fellow brothers and sisters in arms. Walderman, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran, said providing veterans with a place to socialize was a primary reason for starting the cafe.

“Part of our mission was camaraderie and positive interactions (with other veterans),” he said.

A volunteer greets a veteran who stopped by the Veterans Day drive-thru event. (Photo by Cody Sexton)

Due to the pandemic, the Hero’s Cafe has not met in person for months. However, Walderman said volunteers are continuing to work to interact with veterans in the community. Though many Veterans Day celebrations were held virtually this year, the cafe partnered with the American Red Cross and American Gold Star Mothers to hold a drive-thru Veterans Day donation event Wednesday afternoon in Lynnwood.

The event was held at New Life Church, where the Hero’s Cafe will begin meeting in person once volunteers agree it is safe to do so. For the past four years, the cafe had met at the Verdant Wellness Center, located on 196th Street Southwest in Lynnwood.

Hero’s Cafe volunteers Cathy Carter (left) and Mary Eaton (right) display a banner made by elementary students from St. Luke School in Shoreline. (Photo by Cody Sexton)

Veterans were invited to drive by the church — located at 6518 188th St. S.W. — to accept donations, including sanitizer and cleaning supplies from Home Depot, fresh pastries and Hunniwater soda water. Elementary students from St. Luke School in Shoreline also decorated a banner and 150 “Thank You” cards to hand out to veterans who came by.

The event was orchestrated by Myra Rintamaki, a Gold Star Mother, who also arranges for the monthly Hero’s Cafe meetings. According to Walderman, this week’s event was the first of future drive-thru events held monthly for veterans.

Walderman, right, recognized Gold Star Mother Myra Rintamaki for her work with the Hero’s Cafe. (Photo by Cody Sexton)

When Walderman started the Hero’s Cafe in 2017, it was intended to be a once-a-month gathering. However, he said he quickly learned veterans in the community had needs greater. Once veterans heard about the meetings, Walderman said they would arrive often needing food or financial assistance.

“We met that one day, but out of that came so many requests (for help),” he said.

Since then, the Hero’s Cafe has expanded to make veteran outreach part of its core mission, which Walderman said sometimes starts with getting veteran to attend a meeting.

One issue Walderman said many veterans suffer from is social anxiety, which could make attending large meetings– typically attended by anywhere from 85 to 165 veterans — uncomfortable.

“You see them against the walls and it’s just too many people,” he said. “They would stop coming because it was bad for them.”

Though much of the cafe’s success can be attributed to Walderman, he is quick to share credit. He said the cafe’s community partners — which include several local military organizations — and those who volunteer are an example of “the greatness of the people.”

“There was a tremendous amount of people that stood up and said they’ll (help),” he said.

Among the Hero’s Cafe’s volunteers is a core group of 30-40 people working with veterans who struggle with anxiety to ensure they feel welcome and ease them into attending meetings.

The Hero’s Cafe also partnered with the Disabled American Veterans, a non-profit organization, to help veterans access medical benefits, financial compensation and other resources through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Office. Walderman added that the cafe sometimes takes it a step further by offering support not covered by the VA.

The Hero’s Cafe has provided food, financial assistance and transportation assistance to veterans. In multiple instances, the cafe has assisted veterans whose home was damaged. It also holds drives to collect personal care products, canned foods and clothes for cold weather.

“We do a lot of that kind of stuff, as well as whatever outreach we can offer,” he said.

— By Cody Sexton


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