Military veterans know Stacey Buckner’s tricked-out Jeep when they see it coming. Since 2015, Buckner has been going to homeless encampments on Friday nights to offer a hot shower, a change of clothes, a portable RV clothes washer, a meal and food for later.
And then she brings a listening ear and a bit of camaraderie.
Buckner will be recognized for her service as one of four winners of CityView’s Power of Giving Community Impact Awards for 2023.
The award follows her recognition in July as a CNN Hero, an award that also pays tribute to community service.
“I share this with the people who help with our mission,” says Buckner, who started Off-Road Outreach in 2015. “I couldn’t do it by myself, and I’m a huge advocate for boots on the ground.”
Buckner was nominated for the award by a high school friend from 30 years ago, Krystyn Stern, who says she has seen Buckner take off her own shoes to give to a veteran in need.
“Stacey is one of the most selfless people I know. She works tirelessly to help our homeless and at-risk veterans in the community,” Stern says in her nomination. “Her dedication to our nation’s heroes is unmatched. She is truly the hands and feet of Jesus.”
In 2015, Buckner arrived at the Fayetteville Veterans Affairs Medical Center in bad shape. She had a traumatic brain injury, had to use a wheelchair, told she was paralyzed, and her speech was also damaged.
She says she has "recovered miraculously from (her) devastating disabilities," but that it was during that time she realized how difficult it is for veterans to find "meaningful employment." She also saw how other veterans were being treated for multiple other health problems as well.
Later in 2015, Buckner got a job through the N.C. Department of Health & Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation Division and started working with other veterans. That led to opening Off-Road Outreach. From 2015 to September 2023, they have had fiscal partners in the community, most recently ServiceSource of the Veterans Affairs Department, a community resource for adults with disabilities.
Filling the gaps
“With my (traumatic brain injury), according to science, I should be dead, but God’s glory said, ‘Nope,’” Buckner says. “I saw a gap in services for homeless vets and did something about it.”
To ensure that veterans receive help when they need it most, Buckner’s outreach agency — which gained nonprofit status on Sept. 11 of this year — responds 24/7 whenever its volunteers can.
“For many of her vets, Stacey is the only family they have. They love her and light up when they see her coming,” Stern says.
Buckner is certainly revered in the veterans community in Fayetteville.
Army veteran Joyette Cole met Buckner after Cole had been in a major accident and had several surgeries. She needed services the VA did not provide. Because she had no transportation and she and others in her senior apartment complex needed food, Buckner would take them fresh produce through the Veggies for Vets program.
Cole has become a liaison for other veterans in the community. When she is riding a city bus, she looks for veterans and tells them about the help Buckner can provide, then passes Buckner’s phone number to them.
“She doesn’t mind, and she makes life a lot easier,” Cole says. “Veterans don’t trust a lot of people, but she’s made life a lot easier, and that’s hard to find these days.”
Cole speaks in awe of just how much Buckner does for veterans.
“She’s a ball of energy, like an Energizer Bunny angel,” Cole says with a laugh.
Though Buckner does much of the work herself, part of the reason Off-Road Outreach volunteers are so available is the Community Ambassador Program, in which participants have to volunteer 90 hours before they can raise money on their own or use the branding. Of about 30 current volunteers, about a third are ambassadors. The others volunteer for everything from picking up fliers at the printer to delivering sleeping bags at 11 p.m.
“Homelessness isn’t 9-to-5, but I do have to balance my love for them with family,” Buckner says.
Someone to care
Buckner points out there are multiple entities in the Fayetteville area that provide support to feed and clothe the homeless. What makes Off-Road Outreach unique is the mobile unit that enables her to go to the need plus “providing wrap-around support to get them off the streets.”
“We feed you today and come back next Friday and talk about your goals from the week before and how to reach them.”
She and several peer support specialists also talk with veterans who just need a listening ear and someone to care.
“I offer fellowship, and what is driving me is God,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean it has to be a part of the conversation unless they want that.”
Knowing Buckner and seeing her every couple of weeks when she delivers fresh produce gives Cole comfort and boosts her spirit.
“It makes me still want to be here,” she says.
When Buckner rolls up to a homeless camp in her Jeep, she has a full refrigerator and freezer, a stove and an oven available. After providing a good meal, she gets the shower component to unfold, complete with a propane heater and a pump that plugs in for water pressure. She offers a set of clean clothing, and then the veterans can wash their own clothing and hang it out to dry.
The outreach also focuses on suicide prevention and awareness services.
“Anytime people gather, based on statistics, just being social saves a life. ‘You have to connect to protect,’” she says, quoting a U.S. Department of Defense catchphrase.
Buckner knows firsthand how crucial connecting with other people is. Even if someone connects with her only every couple of years, she’s reminded that they care. In her outreach, she goes through 10 contacts per week to connect with people she knows.
Off-Road Outreach also hosts the Adventure Therapy program. Buckner has taken about 100 veterans to camp, canoe and kayak, skydive, and enjoy a bonfire.
“We intentionally mimic combat adrenaline but in a positive way,” Buckner says.
Outings are posted on Off-Road’s website, and veterans can sign up there.
Additionally, the agency plans to give about 100 families of at-risk veterans a full Thanksgiving meal in November. Other local agencies have referred those families to Off-Road Outreach.
For Buckner, success is not about the raw numbers. The reality is that some homeless veterans likely won’t ever get off the streets because of medical or mental health issues. But they still need someone to talk with, she says.
“I can’t quantify just being there for someone,” she says. “It’s about connecting on a humanity level.”
For those veterans who are trying to get off the streets, the outreach is working on “The Big Tiny Project,” which will include several tiny houses with access to wrap-around services including mental health support, a garden and a food pantry.
Off-Road Outreach can always use volunteers, including for its gardens; in-kind donations such as cold-weather clothing and survival gear; and food, including refrigerated or frozen goods. Learn more about its services at offroadoutreach.com.
The agency also is seeking financial donations, with its next big goal of raising $50,000 to purchase a recreational vehicle to provide “greater mobile impact.” Donations can be made at gofundme.com/f/stacey-buckner-offroad-outreach.
“I try to tell people that, no matter their circumstances, giving is inclusive,” Buckner says. “You can make a difference just by speaking kind words. ... We are there whenever a veteran has a need, whatever it is.”