Lakewood woman champions veterans, puts together Welcome Home Boxes

About four years ago, a neighbor of Dorothy Burke’s came to her Lakewood front door in tears. The neighbor, who has since moved, worked for the Veterans Administration and, as part of her job handed over the keys to apartments where veterans, recovering from homelessness, would reside.

“I take these guys and gals to their apartments, give them the key and they don’t have anything except the pack on their back,” Burke recalled the distraught neighbor’s plea.

Burke, 84, a 58-year resident of Lakewood and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, saw an opportunity and seized it.

“My DAR chapter (Blue Spruce) could take on a good project,” Burke said. “I had a box the next day and it had toilet paper in it.”

The Welcome Home Box is filled with other home essentials, including napkins, soap, coffee, utensils and oatmeal. In a personal touch, Burke stitches quilts to put in the boxes, she’s also crocheted dishcloths as part of the package.

As of Dec. 1, the Blue Spruce chapter has given more than 820 boxes to area veterans. Burke is the recipient of the 2020 Colorado State Society Outstanding DAR Service for Veterans Award.

“The boxes are made with so much love and care,” said Karen Schilling, a past DAR regent and Burke’s friend.

When Burke first approached her DAR sisters about the project she received enthusiastic and  positive support. “Support for veterans is very, very important” to DAR chapters and members, Schilling said.

Burke and her first husband, Robert, were a young couple living in New Mexico where he served in the Air Force. After the service, they decided to move to Colorado and she went to work for Jefferson County Public Schools as a secretary.

In the late 1970s, Burke worked to establish an independent labor union for classified school employees. She help found the Colorado Classified School Employees Association, which represented food service and maintenance workers, custodians, bus drivers, teacher aides, paraprofessionals and secretaries. She served as the association’s executive director, negotiating wages and benefits, and representing members in grievances, among other duties, until about 2000. “It was very interesting,” Burke said.

Burke and Robert, who died in 1992, raised two children, a son and daughter. Burke has two granddaughters and two great-granddaughters. Her husband, Don Grimm, is a Vietnam service veteran. Burke participates virtually in accordance with COVID-19 safety precautions, in a Bible study group.

“She is amazing, she is such a go getter and she is very dedicated to veterans,” said Kimberly Hilling, a social worker with HUD-VASH who works with veterans and Burke.

Each box contains a note to the veteran who receives it, Hilling said.

“They are incredibly grateful,” Hilling said of the vets. “It is not something that they ask for or are expecting. “A lot of them are touched that someone has thought about them.”

A member of her DAR chapter’s service for veterans committee, Burke gathers books for the VA Hospital, she makes quilts for vets, she’s involved with Wreaths Across America, which places wreaths at National Cemeteries, and she encourages young Marines to write notes of gratitude to veterans. She also leads holiday gift programs for veterans.

“I guess veterans have just had a soft spot in my heart,” she said.

To fill the welcome home boxes, Burke and other volunteers shop at ARC Thrift stores and the program accepts items, and funds, from donors. The program, funded partially through the chapter, also relies on a corporate rewards account.

“It is a challenge, but it is rewarding,” Burke said of her volunteer service for veterans. “When you do things for other people, it makes you feel good.”

The veterans homelessness program has an anonymity component, but Burke and the chapter sometimes receive anonymous thank you cards, or an email, for the boxes.

“That means the world to me,” she said.

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