November/December 2020

Veteran Finds New Ways to Serve His Community

In the midst of a trying time,
a couple from Emporia, Va.,
looks forward to spreading holiday kindness

Serving comes naturally to Edward Bryant. After fighting in the Vietnam War, seemingly a million miles away from small-town America, the young Army sergeant returned home to his beloved hometown of Emporia, Va., with a desire to seek new ways to serve again. This time, by giving back to his local community — and to his fellow veterans. His wife of almost 50 years, Kay, offers insight as to why her husband has such a servant’s heart. “When Edward serves veterans and other people, I think he feels like he’s giving back to the Lord for bringing him home from Vietnam alive,” she says.

From delivering thousands of holiday cards into the grateful hands of veterans to dressing up as Santa Claus and bringing holiday cheer to people in local hospitals and retirement homes, the Bryants are true community servants.

Edward, past commander of the American Legion Post 46, has been giving out fruit baskets to local veterans, with his wife, long before they officially started the “Christmas Cards for Veterans” program in 2016.

“I go to McGuire veterans hospital in Richmond a lot for my medical care, and I see veterans over there who have nobody to visit them. I thought a Christmas card would brighten their day,” he explains.

Edward Bryant shows off boxes of donated holiday cards in his vehicle and then poses for a photo while delivering to McGuire.

After a pause, he says, “Because, as a Vietnam veteran, I know how it feels to have people forget about you.”

The project, which started with the distribu-tion of a couple hundred cards, has burgeoned into a full-blown community effort. “It’s grown each year since my wife and I started it. It’s a labor of love,” Edward says. “

The first year, we thought we might get a hundred cards, but we ended up with more than 300 cards,” Kay says. “We had a cute little mailbox out front that looked like a mini replica of our house and we had people put their cards in there — but, my goodness, that little mailbox couldn’t even hold all the cards we collected. We had to upgrade.”

In 2019, more than 5,000 cards went to Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center and to local veterans, with churches and community organizations participating in the effort.

In 2019, the Bryants delivered more than 5,000 holiday cards to Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center.

“Every veteran in that complex gets a card, whether they’re a patient, just visiting, or working there,” Edward says. Lap blankets, handmade by Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative member Jane Rodgester and her fellow church members at Zion Baptist Church, are also distributed to veterans confined to wheelchairs.

“We enjoy doing it and the community has gotten behind us and supported us in the project. It’s nice for a veteran to be thought of. It lifts their spirits,” Edward says.

People drop off cards at the Bryants’ home in Emporiain a bright-red mailbox on the porch with the words “Letters for Santa” emblazoned across the front in gold. “You can’t miss it,” Edward says with a laugh.

Donors can seal their envelope or tuck in the envelope flap, Kay explains. “As we receive the cards, we stamp them.” The Bryants place the mailbox on the porch after Thanksgiving Day and collect holiday cards until Dec. 17.

This year, there will be a slight change in how things are done, due to COVID-19 precautions. Edward says McGuire will only accept a certain number of cards, which must be set aside for 72 hours before distribution. “But that’s fine,” Edward says optimistically. “We’re going to make it work. Whatever doesn’t go to McGuire’s will go to local veterans in whatever way we are able to do it safely.”

His passion for spreading kindness stems from what he calls his “view of the world” after serving in the military and then as a police officer. He retired in 2011 after 40 years with the Emporia Police Department. “I’ve seen a lot,” he says.

Edward started Kids N Cops, formerly known as Shop with a Cop, 18 years ago. State and national law enforcement later adopted the unique program in which local law enforcement officers share Christmas experiences with underprivileged children. Kids N Cops also involves a shopping spree and breakfast with officers.

“It’s nationwide now, but that got started right here in Emporia,” he says proudly.

While on the police force, he became Emporia’s first juvenile department officer. Kay recalls a special encounter in a local restaurant several years ago.

“Someone paid for our meal that day, so we went over to find out who it was and thank them. It was a woman who had my husband as her juvenile detention officer more than 30 years ago. She said to him, ‘You talked to me, said I should be locked up but that you were going to give me the opportunity to do something better with my life. And I have, and I want to thank you for that,’” Kay recalls.

Kay and Edward, who are satisfied members of the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative family, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year.

“I was still in high school when Edward went off to serve in the Vietnam War,” Kay says. “He doesn’t like to talk about his experience there, but the work he does to help other veterans is good for his soul. It definitely helps him through the dark days and all veterans have their dark days. It helps him cope.”

Edward Bryant with Kay, his wife of 50 years.

Edward Bryant with Kay, his wife of 50 years.

Beyond their more public community efforts, the Bryants try to make a difference in the lives of others whenever possible. Recently, during a dining experience at Olive Garden, the Bryants recognized a fellow Vietnam veteran in the restaurant. “We went ahead and paid their tab and tip, out of respect for his service,” says Kay.

A former pharmacy technician of 34 years, Kay is just as passionate about giving back as her husband. “We love giving back and helping others,” she says. Kay is involved in the Operation Christmas Child, a project of Good Samaritan’s Purse, with the couple’s church, Calvary Baptist Church in Emporia.

“Did my husband mention that he is also Santa Claus?” Kay asks, with a laugh. For 22 years, Edward has been donning a bright-red Santa suit and visiting members of Calvary Baptist Church, where he serves as deacon, as well as local nursing homes, organizations and hospitals in an effort to spread holiday cheer.

“We had one lady whose daughter called us one night at 9 p.m. and asked if her mother could see him dressed up as Santa. We went to visit her, with him in his Santa suit, and within a couple of hours, she passed away,” says Kay.

Page Rideout of Jarratt first met the Bryants through Edward’s role as Santa Claus at different community functions; she is also involved in the Christmas Cards for Veterans program through her church, Concord United Methodist Church.

“I admire Edward and Kay. Their desire to give to other people comes from deep within their soul. When people retire, they can become couch potatoes or givers — and the Bryants are the latter,” she says.

Rideout says Christmas Cards for Veterans is a wonderful program. “Because of the Bryants’ hard work and generous spirit, it has been so rewarding to see our community come together to do something for those [veterans] who have done so much for us.”

Gloria Myers, a lifelong Emporia resident, gets very emotional when asked about the Bryants. “You don’t even have to ask them to help you. They’re just there,” she says.

“People don’t realize what something as simple as a phone call, smile or an act of kindness can do. Kindness is what makes this world go ’round and, especially with what is going on in the world right now, we need to help one another … our neighbors, strangers, veterans. If the world had more Edwards and Kays, it’d be a much better place to live.”