Stephen Mandile doesn’t mind standing for hours — it’s actually one of the only positions that doesn’t cause him pain, which he suffers from injuries sustained in Iraq with the Army National Guard.
And anyway, it’s for a good cause.
Mandile will be outside on the plaza every day this week from 3 to 8 p.m. collecting donations of toys and cash for two groups of kids: the children of veterans who rely on a shelter out in Worcester, near Mandile’s home, and the children of families in Roxbury who have been affected by a rise of violence in their community.
The toy drive is conducted through Veterans Alternative Healing Inc., an organization Mandile founded that aims to help veterans who are underrepresented in their communities.
“Everything we do is to help everyone getting left behind by the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs],” he said. “I was left behind by the VA myself.”
Mandile joined the Army National Guard in 1998 and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. In 2005, while on a convoy, Mandile crashed into a vehicle that was driving erratically and ruptured six discs in his spine.
The next day he couldn’t feel his legs. He was medevaced out of the area and returned home to Massachusetts as a 100 percent disabled veteran with a spinal cord injury, a traumatic head injury and PTSD.
From there, Mandile dealt with a 10-year opioid addiction because of the more than 57 different prescription medications he was given for his injury. Being forced to leave the service and thus not being able to actively “serve” a community felt “like losing your identity,” he said.
“The other problem was being a father to two little girls, 3 and 5, who for their whole lives all they saw was me lying in bed,” Mandile said. “I needed to teach them about being able to do things and help people… I felt like I wasn’t teaching them the lessons they needed to learn.”
Mandile got off of the prescription medications with the help of medical marijuana.
“For a long time, I felt that being a disabled veteran was all I was going to be,” he said. “It took me a long time to learn how to be something else… Helping people has been what’s helped me the most.”
Veterans were an obvious choice of people needing help, he said. Mandile has seen his friends and fellow vets lost to their medications or in now-ruined families who weren’t able to deal with them when they returned home.
The toy drive will benefit Veteran’s Inc., a veterans group that includes a shelter along with employment training and mental health programs. The toys will benefit those in the shelter who are often children of female veterans as well as veteran families throughout the community.
“What it means to an organization like Veterans Inc. is difficult to overstate,” said spokesperson Jason Palitsch. “To be able to bring that kind of joy to a veteran family, to be able to put gifts under the tree for their kids, is something that they might not have thought they’d be able to do.”
Toys will also go to families in Roxbury who are dealing with a rise in violence. Mandile met Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson at a Turkey Giveaway in there and was shocked to learn about the situation in that neighborhood. Jackson even stopped by to see Mandile during his first day at City Hall Plaza on Monday.
“These families are so used to doing whatever it takes to get by and not really having any assistance from anyone who truly wants to help,”Mandilesaid. “That’s all we want to do: We want to be able to put gifts in these people’s houses so their moms can sit back and watch their kids smile all morning. So they can have that bit of normalcy in their live that they’re missing.”