In 2004, after suffering a traumatic brain injury when his Humvee was hit by an explosion from a roadside bomb, Chris Kreiger was put on an administrative leave by the Army. He later returned home, and was told that he would qualify for 100% disability benefits from the armed forces. When an earlier injury to his leg was deemed non-combat related, however, he was denied those benefits. He spent the next two years in and out of hospitals, suffering from debilitating migraines and epileptic seizures, and was eventually referred to a polytrauma brain center in Richmond, VA.
By 2007, after struggling for years to keep up with the cost of his medical expenses, he and his family had lost their home in Western New York.
During his stay in Richmond, Kreiger heard similar stories from other veterans – men and women who had faithfully served their country, only to be denied adequate medical benefits upon returning home from war. He petitioned for redeployment throughout the duration of his treatment, but when doctors found a series of benign tumors on his spinal cord, he was deemed unfit to serve. He was officially discharged from the Armed Forces on September 23, 2007.
Kreiger had come back to Western New York earlier that year to rejoin his family and try to regain some semblance of normalcy. Then one day in a Tim Horton’s in Niagara Falls, he met a woman who had been following his story in the local paper. She expressed interest in starting a nonprofit organization to support other veterans in the area, and Kreiger was quickly captivated by the idea.
Eight years later, that chance encounter has blossomed into the largest independent veteran support services organization in the region.
From the organization’s first days, Kreiger had a clear vision for WNY Heroes. “I knew what I wanted us to do, and that was to financially support the men and women who served so they didn’t go through the same thing that I went through. We’ll cover up to three months mortgage, rent, and utilities if it means preventing them from becoming homeless. If they are homeless, and we deal with a lot of homeless vets as well, then we’ll pay to get them off the street and back into housing. With WNY Heroes we knew the direction we wanted to take it in. I never would have thought eight years later that it would have blown up into what it is now.”
For the first year, Kreiger and a small team of volunteers fought an uphill battle to establish the credibility of WNY Heroes. With time and tenacity, however, they were gradually able to gain support and recognition from the local community. Eventually, his co-founder was forced to resign from the board of directors due to health concerns, but Kreiger continued on.
“I just kept going forward with it. I started realizing the potential this has and the momentum that it was getting and the amount of community support and sponsors out there.”
Sponsorship was hard to come by at first, but once the first contributors came on board, others followed close behind. Their office was graciously donated by North Forest Office Space in Williamsville. The state police volunteered to host an annual golf tournament. Today, their list of sponsors includes Erie Community College, Key Bank, Merrill Lynch, The Buffalo News, and the Buffalo Sabres.
With support for the organization growing, Kreiger set out to expand the scope of WNY Heroes to encompass not only veterans, but also their families. “I wanted WNY Heroes to be about the family as a whole. As an individual we go down and we sign and we volunteer but the family has no choice. They have to go along for the ride, but it’s not fair for the family to be forgotten either. Everything we do is family oriented. I based our children’s program on what my kids went through.”
When Kreiger was undergoing treatment for his injuries, barely able to pay his mortgage and medical expenses, extracurricular activities for his children had to be put on the back burner. Kreiger remembered how hard this had been on his children, and so he established the WNY Kids are Heroes Too program to fund after school activities for the children of deployed and deceased veterans. “Now we’ve got this program where the veterans can say, ‘you know what, if you want to play football or hockey or dance or ice skate, now you can do it.'”
In conjunction with Kids are Heroes Too, WNY Heroes also established their BackPack program, wherein local businesses and individuals donate school supplies each year to the children of veterans.
Then, in 2011, WNY Heroes launched their most ambitious family support program yet. The Adopt A Family program was designed to match military families with local contributors willing to donate food, clothing, and gifts to veterans and their families during the holiday season. In its first year, the program reached 12 families. In 2012, it reached 30. In 2014, there were 80. Last year, over 140 families were served. For the last two years, every department of Millard Filmore Suburban Hospital has adopted a family. When volunteers discovered that one such family was effectively living in squalor, they took it upon themselves to gut and remodel their bathroom in just three days.
It’s stories like this that remind us that the success of WNY Heroes is a testament not only to the hard work of Chris Kreiger and his team, but also to the remarkable spirit of generosity in the community of Western New York.
Even as WNY Heroes has grown to exceed his wildest expectations, Kreiger has remained committed to keeping the funds raised by the organization in the hands of local veterans and their families. “That was what truly helped us gain a lot of the support. We’re local, all the funds stay local. What a lot of people don’t realize is that for a national organization, over half of all donations go to Washington.”
With eight years of experience and an impressive list of sponsors under their belt, WNY Heroes is continuing to increase the reach of their organization. Currently, their Bridging Hearts program is able to support the financial needs of veterans for three months, but they hope to eventually have the means to support them for six months. Last year, they launched their Pawsitive for Heroes program to match wounded veterans with service dogs. If the veteran already has a dog, they’ll pay to put the dog through a service dog training program. Another local veteran makes vests for the dogs based on the uniforms of their handlers.
In regard to WNY Heroes’ place in the greater context of veteran support services, Kreiger is characteristically frank about the Federal Government’s lackluster efforts to care for their wounded servicemen and women. “If the government was doing right by us as the veteran, then you wouldn’t need a WNY Heroes or a VFW or a DAV. Because they’re not doing it, we have to depend on ourselves to take care of each other. People ask all the time when I’m going to ask for them to sponsor us or donate, ‘doesn’t the government do this?’ There’s a huge misconception in the community that the government does A, B, and C for veterans. It’s up to us show the community that they’re not, and that your donation is going to make A, B, and C possible.”
Want to get involved in the volunteer efforts of WNY Heroes? Check out their website here, and learn more about how you can help.