"We are veterans and we were taught something very unique," said Gumersindo Gomez, the executive director of Bilingual Veterans Outreach Centers of Massachusetts. "We stick together and we are brothers and sisters for life."
Gomez has wanted to open an outreach center in Pittsfield for some time now.
"That is where we got our feet on the ground but we immediately noticed that we needed something larger and handicapped accessible with ample parking," he said. "This was the dream location."
The East Street location opened its doors last month. On Friday, a small ceremony marked the occasion with local leaders, veterans, and other distinguished guests.
Gomez is a Puerto Rican native with a military history. His father served in Korea, he spent more than 20 years in the Army including in Vietnam, and has a son and grandson who are Army veterans. He was living in Springfield in the 1980s when he and several others founded the Puerto Rican Veterans Association to help their fellow veterans, particularly those whose English skills were preventing them from getting the help they needed.
The accredited nonprofit, which changed its name in 2012, had several outreach centers across the state, including in Boston (which closed last year). The main centers are now in Pittsfield and Springfield and it offers aid with documents, paperwork and applications for benefits and education; referrals for legal aid, housing, loans, counseling and emergency services; and assistance with claims and information. It also offers the Jorge Oterro Barreto Homeless Veterans Transitional Program in Springfield.
After the Boston office was damaged beyond repair by fire, Gomez said he petitioned to open a center in Pittsfield.
The new space offers more privacy and room for group meetings. King said it also allows for the center to bring in other agencies to meet with veterans.
King sees five to 10 veterans every day and helps them navigate Veterans Affairs claims and appeals. He said much of the services have moved online, which is daunting to many of his clients.
"We are going to help them and if we can't do it we are going to find someone who can," he said. "I call it a good battle hand-off. We want to make sure they don't get the runaround."
King invited the oldest veteran in the room, Peter Giftos, and the youngest, North Adams Veterans Agent Stephen Roy, to cut the cake with a noncommissioned officer sword as they often do at Army ceremonies.
Roy is just under 50 while Giftos is 93 years old.
King said the sword represents "cutting to the heart of the matter."
Mayor Linda Tyer said she was thankful and proud to have this service available in Pittsfield.
"Having this become part the landscape of services that supply and support and offer assistance to our veterans is key to making sure we are doing all that we can to support veterans in Pittsfield and in Berkshire County," she said.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier told attendees about a veteran and Berkshire Community College student whom she met who had difficulties navigating the complex veteran's benefits system.
"His journey quite frankly and tragically ended when he threw himself off Monument Mountain because it was the only way that he could figure out how to get benefits to his son," she said. "I was determined to make sure we have a way for veterans in Berkshire County to be able to navigate this system."
She thanked Gomez for making this happen in Pittsfield and Gomez said the city is in good hands with King at the helm. He added that they have big plans for the outreach center.
"We have lots of plans for the Pittsfield veterans community. We want to come here to help and that's from the heart," he said. "We got the tools, we got the knowledge, let's get to work."
pittsfield.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.