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    Kits keep veterans' minds, hands busy

    A group has donated crafts to hospitalized veterans for 30 years. The founders and director will visit Bay Pines to celebrate that fact.

    By JULIANNE WU

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


    SEMINOLE -- Homer Whitling sat alone at one end of a cafeteria table, oblivious to his fellow veterans.

    Choosing a pink crayon, the World War II veteran meticulously colored in the cobblestones leading up to a castle.

    "In a nursing home, you have to keep doing things so you don't get bored," he said as he made a few more strokes on the paper. "Sometimes I exercise or even play solitaire."

    He looks younger, but at 96, the white-haired Whitling -- who joined the Navy as a machinist mate first class when he was 39 -- is one of the oldest participants in arts and crafts classes at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines. He will be 97 on March 18.

    "Poster art and woodworking are Homer's favorites," said Tifphani Nall, 24, crafts care specialist at the medical center's nursing home. "Wait until you see the Indian chief Homer did. It's in our display case."

    The crafts are donated by Help Hospitalized Veterans, a non-profit group based in California that was started in 1971 by Roger and Elizabeth Chapin. Joined by the group's executive director, the Chapins will celebrate the group's 30th anniversary at the medical center Friday.

    The group provides kits to help veterans pass the time. Now it is a regular part of therapy programs for veterans throughout the United States.

    Help Hospitalized Veterans has provided more than 17-million therapeutic kits, which cost $8 to $100.

    "We now ship craft kits out by the truckloads to almost 350 facilities," said Mike Lynch, the group's executive director for the past 11 years. That includes about 172 VA hospitals, 68 state veterans facilities and military hospitals.

    Bay Pines veterans have been using the kits for several years. Last year, Bay Pines received more than $140,000 worth of kits and materials, Nall said. Nall showed Whitling, a resident of Florida since 1950, a woodworking kit for a mantel clock. He put down the crayons and began to pull the plastic wrap off the kit.

    "First, you have to sand this piece," said Nall, who helps Whitling and about 400 other Bay Pines veterans with the donated kits.

    "It has helped my nerves," said Whitling. "Before, I couldn't write my name . . . and now my hand is steady."

    At the other end of the table, Fay Sanders, 84, nodded in agreement. "Working on this is good exercise and it keeps your brain going," said Sanders, who served in the Women's Army Corps during World War II, mostly in Germany. She has been at Bay Pines about a year.

    Money for the kits comes from donations. The group has more than 700,000 people on its active donor list, Lynch said. "Some have been with us over 25 years."

    - Staff writer Julianne Wu can be reached at 445-4221 or by e-mail at wu@sptimes.com.

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