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Amy Donaldson: Runners support homeless veterans by participating in annual 5K event

SALT LAKE CITY — On a Saturday in December, about 120 people gathered to run a 5K in Copperton, Utah.

Each person had his or her own reasons for wanting to run — or walk — the 3.2-mile course that winds through the tiny town at the mouth of Bingham Canyon in the southwest corner of Salt Lake County.

Some lined up to test their abilities. Some stood at the start to enjoy a morning with friends. Many ran in memory of the two people for whom the race, the 31st annual Nick E. Yengich Memorial and Grandma Gump Fun Run, is named — Nick Yengich and Jerry Enniss.

But all of them, whether they were aware of it or not, ran to help Utah’s homeless veterans. That’s because each year, the race’s founder, Ron Yengich, chooses a charity, person or organization that will benefit from the proceeds of the race. Without a lot of hoopla or fanfare, Yengich, one of the state’s most prominent and successful criminal defense attorneys, gives those who show up at the race a reason to brave the chilly canyon winds and unpredictable winter weather.

This year, it was to run for those for whom most of us do so little and demand so much. This year, it was to walk a few miles for men and women who sacrificed so much for countrymen who often don’t have any idea what their service means.

“I know our homeless program is ecstatic to hear about this donation,” said Jessica Xaiz Mann, Veterans Justice Outreach specialist. “We are housing veterans every day, and they don’t have basic things — like a lamp or a chair. And this is really, really going to help.”

Yengich stood at the starting line and thanked the group for their commitment to the race, but more so for their commitment to the causes and people it supports.

He hosts the race with Jeff and Beth Jensen and their family, who own Landmark Title, and his mother, Erma Yengich, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday and is the race’s official treat mom, providing doughnuts, coffee, hot chocolate and oranges.

It’s become more than an athletic contest, thanks to a holiday bazaar, silent auction and lunch at St. Paul United Methodist Church, which sits adjacent to the park where the race starts and finishes. After the race, runners enjoy hot food and homemade treats at a day-long event that helps fund the many efforts of the church’s congregation. On display are handmade items, like the layettes made by Erma Yengich or the quilts made by members of the congregation.

About a month after the runners enjoyed the events in Copperton, members of the Enniss family and race director Myrleen Wright met with members of the Veterans Affairs office to present a check to the organization that will be used in various programs aimed at helping veterans in need of housing.

“Working with the community at large, we’ve done amazing work in the last six years,” said Amy Earle, Veterans Justice Outreach coordinator. She said an initiative started in 2010 aimed to “end chronic homelessness. In Salt Lake, we know who our veterans are who are chronically homeless. … We know their names and we’re working with them.”

According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in November of 2013, overall homelessness among veterans was declining — about 24 percent between 2010 and 2013. In Salt Lake, it declined about 13 percent between 2012 and 2013.

A number of issues can contribute to why a veteran becomes or remains homeless, including, post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or substance abuse issues.

“Readjustment issues are a huge part of it,” Earle said. “Whether it’s PTSD, TBI, they’re just not able to function in the regular community. A lot of times, people do self-medicate using drugs and alcohol, which leads to dissolving of jobs and families and drives them to the streets.”

Belinda Karabatsos, veterans chief of voluntary services, said cash donations like the one provided by the Nick E. Yengich/Grandma Gump 5K are immensely helpful in ways that are difficult to imagine for those who’ve never been without a home.

“I can tell you our biggest challenge, and it’s not just our VA but VAs across the board, is when the community does want to donate towards the homeless program as far as housing, household goods and furniture, we don’t have a place to store it. … The VA space is limited to clinics and to provide the care.”

She said she’s been actively looking for the last six years for a donor willing to donate warehouse space to the VA so the programs have a place to store the household items people want to donate to veterans trying to get back on their feet.

“I can’t call someone and say, ‘Remember three months ago when you said you had a couch and a bed? Do you still have that?’ ” she said. “They don’t. So that’s been my biggest challenge is that the community does want to help more, but because we can’t store it, we can’t take things off their hands right away.”

The cash raised by the race is also helpful because a lot of expenses come up as veterans prepare to find jobs and secure housing and VA staff cannot give them cash. The donation, which was earmarked for the needs of veterans in Utah, could go to help them get identification, pay for minutes on a cellphone or other fees associated with renting an apartment or turning on utilities. “It could be something like an ID card, something that’s preventing them from being able to sign a lease,” Earle said. “Sometimes the issue is where are you going to find that $15?”

Karabatsos said sometimes the most difficult aspect of helping veterans is convincing them that they deserve help.

“Sometimes they won’t come to the VA,” Karabatsos said. “We have to go hunt them down. They feel like someone else needs the help worse than they do. So they’ll just make do with what they have. They feel like they’ll figure it out on their own, even if that means being homeless.”

Timm and Kevin Enniss were emotional as they listened to the ways in which veterans' lives are changed with the smallest support. They thanked the women for taking the time to explain how the money will be used and why they are so grateful for the support from the race.

Earle and the others, in turn, thanked those who organize and support the race each year.

“We see the needs every day,” Earle said. “Just knowing people care about our veterans is so awesome.”

Twitter: adonsports; EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com