By Paula Neuman
What a difference a show makes.
A recently aired episode of Facebook-based reality show “Returning the Favor” featured TV personality Mike Rowe doing a surprise makeover for nonprofit Downriver For Veterans in Wyandotte and its founder Rose Ann Rudisill (who goes by Ann).
The program has hugely propelled the nonprofit’s presence, as well as the donations it receives and its ability to help veterans in need. The episode, released Nov. 27, has been viewed almost 6 million times so far. It has been shared online over and over by Downriver people and others it has inspired.
“It’s had a worldwide impact,” said Debbie Hill, warehouse manager and board member at Downriver for Veterans. “We just blew up! It’s wonderful!”
She said she’s getting calls from people all over the country. DFV’s warehouse on Fort Street is open Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the volunteers have had to expand its hours to accommodate all the new interest.
“It’s been busy,” said DFV volunteer Bill Hedke. “People keep coming in dropping off money.”
Here’s just one example:
Former Downriver resident Amber Kundrat lives in Arizona. She and her husband were lying in bed watching stuff on their phones last week when she happened to see the program. She was moved by it. Her children, 14-year-old twins Kaden and Kianna, had been looking for a place to donate some of the money they earn housesitting and doing chores for a neighbor.
“We showed them the video,” Kundrat said.
And that’s all it took.
Kundrat was in town recently visiting relatives, so she popped in to the Downriver for Veterans warehouse to meet Rudisill, and to give her an envelope with the twins’ donation. On the back of the envelope, the children wrote: “Thank you for your service.”
Kundrat wasn’t the only one who popped in that morning.
A polite young Navy veteran in need came in to see if he could get food. A woman, who said she had seen the Facebook program, brought in a blind veteran she knows who needs help and has been stymied by the federal agencies and their paperwork.
One of the services DFV provides for veterans Downriver — many of whom don’t have transportation to the Veterans Benefits Administration in downtown Detroit — is help with the paperwork.
Rudisill knows all about it. She is a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran herself. She was serving as a mentor in the Downriver Regional Veterans Treatment Court in Southgate a few years ago when she realized that many Downriver veterans are sometimes without basic needs — food, clothing and more — and have no way to get to Detroit for VA services.
“I could not sit back and do nothing,” Rudisill said.
She formed DFV in 2017, and slowly, word began to spread about its services.
Hill came into the warehouse early on to donate food. Her husband is a Navy veteran and most of the men in her family also are veterans.
“I sat down and talked with Ann,” Hill said. “I love what she’s doing. She fights for our veterans and she gets what she wants. She’s a spitfire.”
Hill joined DFV as a volunteer, and really enjoys working at the warehouse and with the organization’s clients.
“Most of the veterans we help are like family to us,” Hill said.
With the donations, including $30,000 from Mike Rowe, DFV has been able to buy a handicap accessible van to get veterans in wheelchairs to medical appointments or wherever they need to go.
The warehouse is stocked with donated food, clothing, furniture and hygiene products, and Rudisill and her volunteers box up food and other sundries to make regular deliveries to veterans in need who can’t get there. DFV helps veterans with housing and transportation needs, as well.
“As soon as we say we need something for a veteran, we get it,” Hill said.
Local businesses and veterans groups such as the VFW and the American Legion help out often. The “Returning the Favor” video explains all about DFV and Rudisill’s mission, and shows off Wyandotte, as well.
Rowe, with help from Rudisill’s friends and her cadre of volunteers, managed to surprise her with the makeover of the building and the show in August. Keeping the secret before the big reveal was a challenge.
“We had to keep it quiet,” Hill said with a laugh. “We were so happy when it was over, because could finally open our mouths.”
Wyandotte Mayor Joe Peterson, a Vietnam veteran and a member of DFV’s advisory board, was on hand with many others to welcome Rudisill back to the warehouse to see the surprise makeover. The mayor said he was very proud to know her and help with her work. Another advisory board member is Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn).
If Rudisill runs into a veteran with a problem she can’t solve, she calls on Dingell for help, Hill said. One way or another, DFV gets the job done.
“If you lead with your heart and you’re transparent and you truly care about people and you have nothing to lose, then you know what you’re doing is right,” Rudisill posted on the DFV Facebook page. “I love our veterans and I will go to the highest mountain to fight for you and I will get you everything I can.”
DFW is holding a Pancake Brunch with Santa fundraiser from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 16 at PLAV Post 74, 963 Oak St., Wyandotte. The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children. Those attending are asked to bring a $5 “”wrapped white elephant gift” for a local veteran marked whether the gift is for a man or a woman. Photos with Santa will be free of charge.