These Coffee Shops Are Doing Something Unbelievable for Veterans

It's amazing what can happen over a cup of coffee. Just ask Otis Winstead.

Seven years ago, Otis Winstead was a homeless veteran. His sister had just died of cancer, and he had little direction and no hope. Transitioning from combat to civilian life is challenging for many vets. He’d heard about Dryhootch, a grassroots organization that helps veterans bridge the gap between military service and civilian life. He stopped in to one of the coffee shops for a cup of coffee and a chat. That started him on a journey toward helping countless other vets find their way to positive, productive lives. He’s now the director of Great Lakes Dryhootch.

Dryhootch Coffee ShopJim Wieland/TOH

What Is Dryhootch?

“Dry” is key, because alcohol and drug addiction plague so many returning vets. “Hootch,” in military jargon, is a hut or safe place to sleep during combat. Dryhootch founder, former veteran and current president Robert Curry started this nonprofit to create coffee houses that are safe, drug- and alcohol-free environments where veterans can connect and find help from others who’ve walked in their shoes. There are currently several locations in Wisconsin, a satellite office in Chicago and more chapters to come.

Bricks Leading to Dryhootch Coffee Shop with the names of veteransTaste of Home

Vets Helping Vets

Most of the classes and programs offered through Dryhootch are peer led—vets helping other vets find their way. In fact, the folks at Dryhootch are so committed to the value of peer mentoring that they partnered with the Medical College of Wisconsin to develop a nationally recognized 40-hour training program called QRF, or Quick Reaction Force.

“We offer PTSD and addiction groups, as well as employment and housing assistance,” says Otis, “but we also have music and art therapy, creative writing classics, reiki, a chess club, and soon we’re installing a gaming lounge for our younger vets in one location. Basically, anything that benefits vets and their families emotionally, mentally and spiritually is fair game.”

Vets struggling with medical issues can journey with a peer to find the clinicians they need as they readjust to civilian life. Because returning female veterans have historically been an underserved demographic, Dryhootch is currently developing a women’s support group program.

(Veterans are also disproportionately more likely to need assistance from food pantries. Here are the items your local food bank really needs.)

Dryhootch Coffee CupTaste of Home

Help in Real Time

“Sometimes we encounter vets that are going through trauma and aren’t comfortable coming out in public, or are in a very rural area without access to resources,” says Otis. To solve this, the leaders of Dryhootch recently developed a Smart App so peer mentoring can take place over the phone. “The app allows us to provide the power of peer mentoring 24/7,” he says. Vets can reach out to their Peer Battle Buddies for help, advice or just a conversation with someone who knows what they’ve gone through. As the Dryhootch website says, “The military teaches us to never leave a brother or sister behind in battle. Now we pledge to never to leave a brother or sister behind on the streets.”

Bags of Dryhootch Coffee Beans for each branch of the serviceTaste of Home

Special Forces BOLD, Anyone?

You don’t have to be a vet to stop in at Dryhootch. The public is heartily invited to visit and indulge in one of the six varieties of home-brewed coffee that represent each branch of the service. “Our cafe-like atmosphere allows the community and vets to come together in a positive, friendly environment, which benefits everybody,” says Otis.

And he should know. The transformation in his life has been miraculous. Otis went from being homeless to offering a helping hand to vets in need. As he says, “The folks at Dryhootch put the mirror up and let me see the good in myself and my God-given abilities. Today I’m a nationally certified Peer Support Specialist and the director of Great Lakes Dryhootch.”

The Dryhootch mission is to help veterans who survived the war find a way to survive the peace. And they do it with their boots on the ground. That means the world to Otis Winstead and so many others.

Inspired by Otis’ story? Help your neighbors in need by getting involved with Feeding America. Contact your local food bank to find out how you can best support it now.

Next up: Veteran-owned businesses you can feel good about supporting

Dana Meredith
Dana is an editor and writer who shares her passion for travel, food and the beauty of American landscapes. When she's not wielding her red pen, she can be found tending her flower gardens, remodeling her house, creating one-of-a-kind jewelry or dancing to "Uptown Funk."