Around Halloween, seeing someone drop off a package on your stoop, ring the doorbell, and run, you tend to think you are being pranked. But a new Rockville Centre movement called “Ninjas 4 Vets” is putting a positive spin on that process by anonymously dropping off candy and presents to local veterans to help brighten their days.
On November 10, the movement will empower kids and their families to stealthily deliver a “Thank you for your service” poster tailored to their assigned veteran along with some leftover Halloween candy. This year, the participants will meet at the fire house on Maple Ave. for pizza before organizing where they will go and staying safely together.
Gene Vassel, the Ninja 4 Vets founder, was inspired during his time working with an organization in Long Beach called Waterfront Warriors about a decade ago. There Vassel befriended a veteran from Arkansas named Levi Crawford there who has sustained several injuries during his service. Crawford gave a TED Talk style lecture that got Vassel even more invested in the struggle many veterans face when returning home.
“I got to learn about his story, his sacrifice, his grit and perseverance,” Vassel said. As a teacher in at Woodland Middle school in East Meadow, Vassel was also inspired when he learned that one of his students had moved seven times before his eleventh birthday. This experience gave Vassel some perspective on the family side of those who go away to war.
Vassel’s children helped him come up with the name “Ninjas 4 Vets” as a theme that lets them have fun while also recognizing and celebrating local veterans.
Vassel’s neighbor Tom Heptig was the first to receive a poster and candy in 2015. Heptig is a Navy veteran. Little by little the movement spread by word of mouth and today it serves 45 village veterans annually. The goodie bags contain a pamphlet for veterans to fill out and return to help give background to their service that can go on the posters and serve as an educational element for the kids involved.
As a teacher, Vassel also knew he would have to make the movement fun by gamifying the activity while still teaching children about Veterans Day.
“It’s just a simple way of acknowledging and celebrating what these men and women have done for our country,” Vassel said.
“That poster and that little goodie bag on the stop was way more personal and sincere of a thank you than a lot of other things that are out there,” Vassel said.
“When someone puts that sign on your door and that little bag of candy and you know that the sign was handmade by kids, you know that there was some real thought behind that, Heptig said.
Heptig continued: “The anonymity of it was pretty inspiring because you know there’s just some good person out there who wasn’t looking for recognition.”
Heptig said that the veterans are especially thankful for the care and creativity that goes into these gifts, and the fact that children are so involved heartens the veteran community as it can serve as a learning experience, too.
Heptig agreed, saying “I think that little bit of mischief creates this fun environment for the kids and they’re doing something good at the same time.” Heptig has joined on as a representative of the Navy veterans on the movement’s board.
The movement will complete its sixth annual event this year, having not been affected by Covid-19 because of the no-touch delivery central to the night.
Vassel said that there are hopes that the future could see new chapters in other locations like with Crawford in Arkansas or through another of his friends on Garden City. “My vision is for this to be a country-wide thing because why can’t this be in every town,” Vassel said. “Who knows where this can go in a few years.”
Residents can email Vassel at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved in the movement or even start a new chapter in their communities.