An event that started out in its first year with just seven people in attendance, will celebrate its 16th annual gathering Nov. 13, after drawing more than 200 people last year.


Because of growing attendance, this year’s Story County Supermarket of Veterans Benefits, put on by the Story County Veterans Affairs Office, will move to a new venue — The PLEX, at 5501 George Washington Carver Ave., Ames.


“We have outgrown the space at the Moose Lodge (where the event has been held for most of the past 16 years),” said Story County Veterans Affairs Director Brett McLain. “We thank them (at the Moose Lodge) for all the years they donated space to us.”


The PLEX in Ames, McLain said, will offer more parking and more handicap accessibility, not to mention more space for the growing number of vendors that are coming each year.


The Story County Supermarket of Veterans Benefits is a free event that offers veterans and their spouses, along with spouses of deceased veterans, an opportunity to learn each year about the many services and benefits that exist for them.


It started with six agencies providing information. Now, there are at least 20 agencies, coming from Story, Marshall, Polk and Emmet counties, represented at the event.


“I have actually had for-profit businesses ask to attend (like real estate associations and insurance companies),” McLain said. And he’s open to most of them, as long as they understand that the event and the things offered that day are free of charge for veterans. “Veterans have already paid the price, so no one is selling anything (at this Supermarket).”


Some of the favorite things offered at past Supermarkets, that will be offered again this year, McLain noted, are free haircuts, coffee and donuts, and veterans enjoying great conversation with other veterans.


“The Supermarket is a great ‘one-stop shop’ for veterans, where they can get all of their questions about benefits answered in one location full of VA professionals,” McLain said.


This year’s Supermarket will feature a program by Registered Dietitian Katie Squires, RD, LD, of the Lincoln Center Hy-Vee in Ames. Her program about health and wellness will start off the day.


Other great benefits at the event will include free flu shots, given by VA Central Iowa; and a Homeless Standdown, which will have some Department of Defense items for free, with a good selection of boots.


McLain recently spoke to the Story County Board of Supervisors about this successful event, which his office has continued to hold annually, and about other great things going on in the Veterans Affairs Office of Story County.


“Federal dollars coming to Story County veterans 16 years ago was $6.5 million — compared to last year, it was at $24.2 million,” he said. “That’s $2.4 million in new money from last year. So I believe doing this outreach program and our May program, ‘Veterans Appreciation,’ is paying off in a big way. Not only are the veterans getting the benefits they have earned, deserve and had to fight for, but it’s a huge economic boost for Story County.


“It’s kind of like a business in the county growing from $6.5 million to $24.2 million in 16 years,” he said.


Attendance at this year’s event could be as high or higher than last year, but could be lower, McLain said. “Sometimes (attendance) success is triggered by weather. We do have some who attend each year and keep coming back, along with some we have never seen before.”


The Supermarket draws most of its attendance from right here in Story County, but also pulls a number of veterans from counties surrounding Story.


“We always have a few veterans from the surrounding counties attend, like Boone, Marshall, Hardin, Hamilton and Polk… We don’t turn veterans away because of where they live; however, after meeting with them, we will give them a phone number and an office location for their county veteran affairs office.”


Veterans who attend are asked to bring an original DD-214 — certified or a copy of one that is readable. Surviving spouses are asked to bring their veteran’s DD-214, their marriage certificate and their spouse’s death certificate.


“We have all VA agencies represented here — county, state and federal,” McLain said. “That means we have a lot of professionals all in one room, so no question will go unanswered.” And when people bring the required documents, he said, “all VA benefits can be applied for that day on the spot.”


Looking back, McLain remembers that first lackluster Story County Supermarket of Veterans Benefits event. “It was on a Saturday in Ames at the American Legion,” he said. And with less than 10 people attending, “I actually wasn’t sure we were going to try it again. But by not quitting and being persistent, that yielded success for us the very next year with 50 turning out.”


McLain said the success that Story County Veterans Affairs has enjoyed with its Supermarket event is definitely not due to just his own work.


“I have to give thanks to the staff in Community Services; Erin Rewerts, county veteran service officer; commissioners who serve on the Commission of Veterans Affairs past and present; and the Story County Board of Supervisors who serve, past and present, for their support over the years; and also all the agencies (that take part). This is a team effort to make this happen.”