Over the crackling sound of dozens of shotguns firing, military veteran John Deegins expressed what that noise reverberating across the Santa Rosa Shooting Range in Pace during the Gulf Power Clay Shoot for America’s Heroes meant to his nonprofit, a veterans nursing home in Panama City that caters to veterans across Northwest Florida.

Rick Anderson, Plant Crist manager, was among the dozens of Gulf Power employees who participated in the clay shoot as a way to support veterans.

“The money raised at the Clay Shoot means we can give the veterans a better quality of life near the end of their lives,” said Deegins, director of Bay County Veterans Service Office. “Many of these veterans have no family or no income. Some of them can’t eat solid food because they need dental care that the state does not pay for. We take care of their dental care. We provide activities and iPads so they can connect with loved ones. We take them on outings and upgrade their old TVs.”

Friends of Clifford Chester Sims State Veterans Nursing Home along with Pathways for Change and 3rd Chance Inc. are the three charities benefiting from proceeds from this year’s Clay Shoot. Since its inception in 2013, it has raised more than $300,000 in support of veteran-related services across Northwest Florida. In its fifth year, the Clay Shoot proceeds have increased from $53,000 to $91,900 in 2016.

John Deegins, director of Bay County Veterans Service Office, talks about how his charity, Friends of Sims Veterans Nursing Home in Panama City, will use its share of the clay shoot proceeds to help veterans nearing the end of their lives.

With this year’s event attracting a record number of shooters — more than 160 — proceeds are expected to exceed last year’s record. These donations will provide a much-needed infusion into the budgets of the charities, two of which provide services to help female and male veterans transition out of homelessness.

Connie Bookman, Chief Executive Officer of Pensacola-based Pathways for Change, said the Clay Shoot donation, unlike others they receive, can be earmarked for the operating costs for The Clinton Cox Residence, a new 12-bed transitional facility for homeless female veterans, some of whom are recovering from substance abuse and PTSD.

“I love that Gulf Power allows us to use this money for our operating cost,” she said. “This is huge for us. It will pay for our utilities … our house mother and other costs.”

The Rev. Cecil Williams with 3rd Chance Inc., is breaking ground on a homeless, male veterans transitional home, The Lazarus Project in Fort Walton Beach, this month. He said the Clay Shoot dollars will help provide veterans who have struggled to work their way out of homelessness with a stable environment.

The clay shoot provides a unique fundraising event for outdoor enthusiasts and hunters who want to support veterans.

“Permanent housing seems to be a stabilizing factor in the lives of the homeless,” he said and pointed out other services that will be provided to build a strong foundation for success. “We’ll help with PTSD and behavior counseling, healthcare and new clothes. We’ll promote self-determination to help them transition from a one-bedroom apartment back into a family or into their own home.”

Verdell Hawkins, Gulf Power Community Relations manager, pointed out that the Clay Shoot is a popular event because of the high concentration of veterans and active duty military living in the Northwest Florida.

“Gulf Power is passionate about this event and other veteran-focused events because many of our customers, our employees and friends are veterans,” said Hawkins. “The Clay Shoot was a kick off to this week’s observance of Veterans Day, a time when we honor the more than 150 veterans who work for Gulf Power and the countless men and women in our communities who so proudly served our country.

Since 2013, the Clay Shoot for America’s Heroes has supported the following veterans’ organizations:

  • Eagle Fund – Andrews Institute Gulf Breeze – 2013
  • The Fisher House – Fort Walton Beach – 2013
  • Gulf Coast Veterans in Need – 2014
  • Building Homes for Heroes – Panama City/Pensacola – 2014/2015
  • University of West Florida’s Military and Veterans Service Fund – Pensacola – 2015
  • Special Operations Warrior Fund – 2015 Fort Walton Beach
  • Gulf Coast State College’s Military and Veterans Emergency Funds – Panama City – 2016
  • Bob Hope Villas – Fort Walton Beach – 2016
  • Santa Rosa County’s Veterans Memorial Vets to VA Program – 2016
  • Pathways for Change – Pensacola – 2017
  • 3rd Chance – Fort Walton Beach – 2017
  • Friends of Sims Veterans Nursing Home – Panama City – 2017