For the fourth year in a row, volunteers in Indiana County—including students in Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Rho Tau Chi military service fraternity and a number of IUP employees—will be making the holiday a bit brighter for homeless veterans in Indiana County and western Pennsylvania.

Collection of stockings

The “assembly line” for stuffing the stockings

Over the past several years, volunteers from several veterans organizations in the community, elected officials, members of areas churches, and interested individuals in the area, along with IUP Rho Tau Chi and other IUP students and employees, have collected donations for the Homeless Heroes Holiday Stocking Project, and provided more than 2,500 stockings with toiletries and personal care items for veterans each year.

Since 2019, the project has been led by Indiana PA Veterans and Community United, which was founded by IUP's Kristin Squires, a member of IUP's Department of Public Safety and a sophomore nursing major. IUP students in Rho Tau Chi continue to be at the core of the volunteer group, which also includes a number of community members. In addition to stuffing the stockings, the Rho Tau Chi students actively sort donated items, and with any monetary donations, shop for needed items. The group also does fundraisers for the project.

Traditionally, a room in IUP's Pierce Hall, home to IUP's Department of Military Science, has been the site for stuffing and organizing the stockings. Following health and safety guidelines related to the coronavirus pandemic had volunteers doing things differently this year, but they were determined to continue the project and to serve veterans.

Kristin Squires with box of stockings

Kristin Squires with a box of stockings ready for distribution to homeless veterans

“Normally, we'd have about 200 volunteers working together to create the stockings over the course of several evenings; this year, we had 32 volunteers complete 1,600 stockings in just four hours,” Squires said. “We were determined not to let the pandemic keep us from helping our veterans, especially in a year when the needs are even greater because of COVID-19.”

“We are still collecting donations and we still have a goal of gifting 2,500 stockings to our homeless heroes,” she said.

As of December 15, the group has filled a total of 1,833 stockings, which are currently being distributed to homeless veterans in Indiana County and 11 other western Pennsylvania counties.

In addition to her work and her studies, Squires, who lives in Indiana but is originally from Washington Township, is the advisor for Rho Tau Chi. The military service fraternity includes about 28 IUP students and works with the Indiana County veteran's homeless shelter throughout the year.

Squires has a criminology degree from IUP and has been with IUP's Office of Public Safety for the past five years. An injury in 2018, from which she is still recovering, has resulted in her intention to change her career from law enforcement to nursing, which maintains her goal of helping people.

She was a member of the US Army reserves, and while she was not been deployed for active duty, she has worked with a number of veterans, and looks at Indiana PA Veterans and Community United as an opportunity to pay it forward.

Stockings loaded for distribution

Stockings packed for distribution

“The group continues to grow, and the students are amazing in their passion and energy,” she said. “We do service projects throughout the year, not just for homeless veterans, but for veterans and their families who are in need of help, maybe with home repairs or other projects that will make their lives better.

“The whole point of the group is to unite the local veterans and the community, to reintegrate veterans into the community and to serve them after they come home from serving their country,” she said. “We also involve veterans in our service projects. We're a completely volunteer organization, so there are no overhead costs.”

Squires said that the students' energy is contagious, and she hopes to get more students involved in the group, which also helps to build bridges between IUP and the community.

“The students go so far above and beyond for these projects—it's amazing,” she said. “I think our group is one of the largest community-student service organizations in Indiana County.”

Recruiting for membership comes from mostly social media and word of mouth, she said. Persons interested in donating to the Homeless Heroes project or getting involved with the organization can find out more on Facebook or can email Squires at Donations for the Homeless Heroes Holiday Stocking Project are being accepted through December 31.