Vets on Track

Changing the lives of veterans and first responders - one home at a time!

By Rick Ecker / Vets on Track Foundation November 8, 2018

On any given night, more than 600,000 Americans will sleep in alleys, abandoned buildings, and under bridges because they have no home. Many of these are this nation’s forgotten heroes – the men and women who once proudly served in a military uniform…yet today they are finding themselves experiencing the ravages of homelessness.There are many organizations working at the grassroots level to help these veterans make the transition from living on the streets into permanent housing.  The Vets on Track Foundation (VoTF), a Virginia based 501(c)3 non-profit organization, discovered that getting homeless veterans into new homes is only the beginning of their transition.For a little more than two years, the VoTF has been serving veterans and first responders in Virginia, D.C., and Maryland who are entering permanent housing after being homeless. In that time, they have transformed the lives of more than 255 men and women, by turning empty houses, rooms, and apartments into warm and inviting homes.

The organization was founded by Rick Ecker, a retired Marine, who exposed an unexpected gap in the care of our veterans. The sad reality is that much of the assistance in establishing a new home for a veteran stops at the very door to that new room or apartment. When veterans first enter permanent housing after being homeless, they often have no furniture or household goods and can find themselves living in an empty apartment with virtually nothing. “The need for support goes much deeper than just putting a veteran in housing,” said Ecker, Founder and CEO of the VoTF.  “Although many homeless agencies work hard to ensure these veterans are heading down the right path, one critical element in their transition from living on the streets has been overlooked, and mainly due to funding issues – they need furniture and basic household accessories…the things that will help turn their new house into a home,” said Ecker, former Director of Community Outreach for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

While living on the streets, many of these veterans lose their self-pride and dignity and often have a tough time readjusting back into mainstream society.   These issues are compounded when the veteran, having just received the keys to a new beginning, has to stare at the seemingly cavernous void of an empty apartment – day in and day out.  While organizations are working hard to help veterans get off the street  and into affordable housing, that assistance doesn’t come with a bed, a chair, dishes, or many of the things that make a house a home. That is where VoTF comes in.

“Our Foundation started working with an organization based in Washington D.C. called the Friendship Place,” said Brittany Cooke, the Foundation’s Co-Founder, and Rick’s oldest daughter.  “They have a very successful approach to getting veterans into permanent housing, but couldn’t fill the furniture void due to the lack of funding and manpower,” she added.  “We stepped in and said our foundation would address the need for furniture and accessories through our Fresh Start Program, and from that moment on our mission and purpose has been very clear,” said Cooke.

Since the first delivery in July 2016, more than 255 veterans have been given a fresh start by the Vets on Track Foundation, and according to Ecker, the organization hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of need.

“It was a true awakening for my family and I when we walked into the first veteran’s home,” said Ecker.  “The only thing in that one bedroom apartment was a blanket and pillow, nothing else.  There was no furniture in the living room, bedroom, or dining room and the walls were bare,” he added.  “This veteran had been living like this for a few months, and although he had a warm place to sleep, he still had no home,” said Ecker.  “It was that very moment, when my wife Lesley and youngest daughter Rileigh delivered the needed furniture to this veteran, that the true compassion of our mission was realized.  We knew there was a need that somehow society overlooked and we wanted to tackle it,” he added.

The entire “Fresh Start Program” is volunteer based…no one gets paid a dime.  Local communities have rallied to the request for support, according to Rick.  “Everything from sofas to chairs, dining sets, to beds, dishes and blenders,” no matter what we ask for, the generosity of the community comes through,” he added.“We have been able to transform empty apartments into fully furnished and equipped homes,” Rick continued.  “In our small way, by giving them a “lift up” we have been able to give these veterans back their dignity, pride and self-esteem, when they needed it the most,” he said.

The Vets on Track Foundation averages 10-12 requests per month, and expects that number to increase as the Foundation becomes better known.  Every Saturday, the foundation organizes a “Sort and Delivery” day.  “This is when community volunteers and the foundation staff get together and sort through all the donations and separate the items by request,” explained Ecker.   “We will load our two trucks with furniture and accessories for at least two to three homes per truck. We provide everything a veteran needs to turn an empty house into a warm and inviting home,” he added.  “We then break our volunteers into teams of three to four ambassadors per truck and send them on their way to deliver the much needed support,” he concluded.

The volunteers not only deliver the requested items, they often stay with the veteran to help hang pictures, put beds together and put away dishes – they assist with anything that the vet needs to complete the transformation of his home.

According to Ecker, it has taken awhile to develop the donation and delivery process model.  “We have purposely kept our growth slow so that we could master the process,” he said.  “When we partnered with the Friendship Place, they had no idea how this would work.  We had to prove our model and show them that we could bring added value to their program,” he added.   “So far, more than 175 homes have been furnished in support of the Friendship Place since this partnership was formed more than two years ago, and have expanded our reach into other homeless agencies.  We have now developed a process where a Vets on Track Foundation Ambassador will visit with the veteran needing support before anything is delivered.  We help the veteran determine what would be good in his/her apartment – that way there is no guess work” said Ecker.  

The future of the Vets on Track Foundation looks bright.  Plans for expansion of the program are already in the works.  “We want to create nine Vets on Track Foundation “Fresh Start” regions within the United States,” said Brittany.  “Within those regions, we would have office/warehouse space that would serve the veterans and first responders within that region,” she added.“Our goal is to be able to support our veterans and first responders no matter where they live in this country,” she said.  “We would open our services to more agencies that work in the homeless sector, giving us the needed reach,” she concluded.

There’s an old saying within the military “we take care of our own.”  The Vets on Track Foundation understands that saying and practices it every day!

Get more information at & in our Community Involvement Guide.