MATTOON -- When her husband Gary died earlier this year, Connie Jones knew she wanted to use money from memorial donations to help people who'd served as he did.

Jones said her husband was a Vietnam War veteran who died from complications from exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant during the war.

She knew she wanted the donations to go to a veterans group but wanted it to be a local organization, so the funds became the "seed money" for the newly formed Coles County Veterans Support Coalition.

Since then, the group incorporated as an organization for tax-deductible contributions and is starting to work with other veterans organizations, said Jones, who's one of the coalition's six board members.

"It's just taken off," she said. "We've been surprised with the overwhelming support."

The coalition's efforts have included direct support programs as well as social activities.

Veterans who need help with rent, groceries, utilities and other expenses can get immediate assistance from the organization, coalition board member Blake Leitch said.

The veterans are then directed to programs to address those needs in the long run, he explained.

"We want to make sure that if there's a need to meet that need," he said. "We're spinning our wheels if they keep coming back to us."

Also, coalition volunteers plan to soon start helping county veterans to prepare their homes for winter weather and do other seasonal chores, Jones said.

In September, the coalition paid for a trip to Chicago for two veterans and their families, covering travel expenses, meals and hotel accommodations and tickets to a Chicago Cubs baseball game.

The winners were chosen in a random drawing. Leitch said there are plans to make the prize an annual event but perhaps choose the winners from nominations.

"We'd use it as a way of rewarding those involved in the community or maybe who did something incredible during their service," he said.

Last month, the coalition sponsored a free breakfast for veterans at Pagliacci's Family Dining in Mattoon.

Jones said that was part of an effort to give the veterans "what's important to them." In that case, it was a recognition of their service but also a chance for the veterans to enjoy the camaraderie, she said.

The group's upcoming plans included a fundraiser on Dec. 2 that will feature a trivia contest with questions about the popular holiday movie "A Christmas Story." The event will take place at Hunan Fine Asian Cuisine restaurant in Mattoon and include an award announcement.

There are about 150 veterans helping with the coalition and Leitch said the idea is to add more and develop demographic information on area veterans.

A more formal volunteer program is scheduled to begin in January. Leitch said the coalition will help volunteers the training and whatever else they need to "put that compassion into action."

Requests for help and more information about the coalition are available on its website, www.colescountyveterans.org, or by calling Jones at (847) 612-2547.

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