PITTSFIELD -- Bus fares typically range anywhere from $1.25 to $5 in Berkshire County.

But over the past month, the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority was offering free rides -- well, sort of.

Instead of cash, the BRTA was accepting food and personal hygiene items for the residents of Soldier On, the Pittsfield-based organizations that provides housing, food and other services for homeless veterans.

The returns beat expectations, with an estimated 870 riders donating items. The haul, which just ended, doubled last year's cache.

Soldier On CEO John Downing estimated that more than $3,000 worth of goods were collected.

On Thursday, veterans from Soldier On picked up cans of mashed potatoes, apricots, soup, beans, corn, peanut butter, spaghetti and boxes of Oreo cookies from the BRTA's headquarters on Downing Parkway in Pittsfield, to bring back to the food pantry at the Soldier On facility on West Housatonic Street.

"It's pretty amazing," veteran and Soldier On resident Tom House said. House, who is originally from Amsterdam, N.Y., served in the Navy from 1978 to 1983. "People are generous this time of year but that's the way it should be rather than taking."

House said the new stash would be a boost to the 110 veterans who live at Soldier On. "There is no doubt about it," House said. "There is a lot of good stuff."

While some riders gave just enough to get a good deal on the exchange, BRTA administrative assistant Diane Burke said others were generous. "Some donated bags full" of goods, she said.

Tami Larimore, director of administration for the BRTA, co-founded the food drive to help the veterans, "who have done and gave so much," she said. "Nobody was doing much for them."

Veterans at Soldiers On get three meals a day, transportation to appointments, plus social and psychiatric services, Downing said.

"Shelters don't work," he said. "They keep you in a state of homelessness the rest of your life."

Chuck Rancatti, a Marine who served in the early 1960s off the coast of Guantanamo Bay and Panama, lives at Soldier On and cooks in the kitchen. A former electrician, he said the veterans back at West Housatonic Street "will go crazy for this."

Rancatti credited the organization with helping him deal with an anger management issue. "They got me out of jail," he said.

At Soldier On, there is rehabilitation help for those with anger management, post traumatic stress, drug abuse issues and alcoholism.

Mike McMahon, an Army veteran and retired major at the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction, works as a case manager for Soldier On. "This is terrific," he said. "It's a real shot in the arm for guys."

McMahon, who served three tours in the Vietnam War, said "It's a tough time for a lot of veterans."

"We kind of fill in where other programs drop off," he said. "People don't get better in 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. It's a process."

To reach Nathan Mayberg:
nmayberg@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6243