BELLVILLE — Tami Oyster knows what it’s like to feel hopeless.
About six years ago, Oyster said she no longer wanted to live. She prayed and asked God to give her a sense of purpose.
Not long afterward, she felt led to sell her unneeded items and donate the money to the American Legion. She rented a tiny storefront, assuming she’d be in business briefly.
That rented storefront eventually became Love Our Hero’s, a charity thrift store where all profits go towards meeting the needs of local veterans.
A year after launching her non-profit, Oyster relocated to the former Pumpkin Hollow building, where the shop now operates.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “Love Our Hero’s saved my life.”
Since its inception, Love Our Hero’s has aided to 342 area veterans. The organization has spent a whopping $109,456.76 on food, household items, transportation, emergency financial assistance and more.
But a big part of Oyster’s mission can’t be quantified with dollars and cents. She wants to combat loneliness and help veterans who may be struggling mentally and emotionally.
The 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report states that there were 6,392 veteran suicide deaths in 2021 — an average of more than 17 per day.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death for veterans under 45, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
The non-profit Stop Soldier Suicide states that veterans are at 57 percent higher risk for suicide than those who haven’t served.
Oyster knows three veterans who have lost their lives to suicide. While she hasn’t served in the military, she said she remembers what that loneliness felt like.
“It could have just been one person saying the wrong thing or nobody saying anything that I could not be sitting here today. So it’s super personal,” Oyster said.
“If it could just take one conversation to change that, then why aren’t we doing it?”
Freedom Cafe reopens Jan. 31
As part of that mission, Oyster announced that Love Our Hero’s will reopen its Freedom Cafe on Jan. 31. Profits will benefit local veterans in need.
The cafe originally opened in January 2020. It closed six months later due to the lack of customers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I closed it, I knew I was going to reopen it. I just didn’t know when,” Oyster said.
“I wanted this place to be for veterans. I want them to want to be here. I want them to come hang out here and just have a spot for them to talk and not be alone.”
The Freedom Cafe feels cozy from the moment you walk in. A wooden American flag hangs above the fireplace mantle. A plush red sofa sits next to a football table. Each table has a game in the center — checkers, cards, tic-tac-toe.
“I want them to feel like they’re coming to my living room,” Oyster said.
Photos of veterans, all donated, hang on the wall like family photos.
“People saw (the uniform hanging up front) and they wanted to bring their own items in or their family member’s in,” Oyster said. “We started hanging them from the ceiling because we have so many.”
Prints of Oyster’s grandfathers hang by the window.
“My entire family are life members of the VFW,” Oyster said. “I grew up doing all the parades. I guess that’s that’s how I got my start as far as loving this country.”
The cafe will be open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Depending on demand, Oyster said she may expand the hours to include Saturdays and dinner hours.
Cafe will feature make-your-own paninis
Guests will have the chance to build their own panini sandwiches, which will be made to order. Additional items for sale will include chips, pretzel bites with cheese, nachos and coffee.
Oyster said she’s also bringing back some fan favorite items like lasagna and chicken Alfredo, but this time, they’ll be available only in a take-and-bake format.
The cafe is currently seeking volunteers. Teens age 13 and older are welcome.
Oyster, who has worked as a server and Subway manager, will oversee the operation.
“When they come in and volunteer, it’s very important for me to mentor them and to show them the correct way to do you things,” Oyster said, referring to teenage volunteers.
“I try to teach them what it would be like to have a real job, so when they go and get a real job then they already know what they’re doing. I teach them how to serve and how to take the orders, how to remember the orders. There’s a lot that goes into serving and customer service. It’s not just taking the food out.”
Kirstie White, a volunteer at Love Our Hero’s, said she’s glad to see the cafe reopen.
“It gives people a place to come and hang out,” White said. “We have a lot of wives that come in and shop and their husbands sit on the bench most of the time.
“They’ll be able to sit in the cafe and at least drink some coffee this time.”