WESTERVILLE, Ohio — Chris Callen likens the routine of his namesake Westerville nonprofit to that of firefighting: You never know when a distress call will come in.
Circumstances aren’t life-threatening, but they might threaten the well-being of an individual or a family.
A car breaks down unexpectedly. An overdue rent check could lead to eviction. An empty refrigerator offers nothing for hungry children.
The Callen Foundation strives to put struggling soldiers at ease — if even just momentarily.
“Everybody gets into a situation,” said Callen, a Vietnam War veteran who in 2011 established a charity to help families of active military personnel with one-time gifts meant to address urgent needs.
No monetary repayment, the 62-year-old said, is required: “Just pass it along when you can help somebody else.”
Requests for help typically originate through one of six family-assistance centers managed by the Ohio National Guard — which, to thwart scammers, review and validate an applicant’s identity and situation.
Such centers serve members in all branches of the military.
Unlike some other groups offering aid, the Callen Foundation doesn’t require that recipients be veterans or have experience overseas.
“It’s a great entity,” said Capt. Douglas Franz, who, in his Columbus post with the guard, has screened and directed queries to the Callen Foundation — where each case is then presented before the board of trustees.
The average gift totals $430; the maximum award is $1,500.
The foundation fills one or two requests a week, Callen said.
If circumstances compel it, he delivers a last-minute house payment or calls a utility company personally.
The need is there: A 2013 survey conducted by USAA (which provides financial services to members of the U.S. military) and Blue Star Families found that 65?percent of military households were experiencing “financial stress” — exacerbated in part by the occupation’s often- chaotic schedule.
And, although domestic financial hardship is a universal issue, Callen is particularly sensitive to shortfalls of servicemen and -women who sacrifice for others.
“Freedom isn’t free,” said Callen, who these days plays the bugle at area military funerals and tributes. “They’re good people ... overworked and underpaid for what they do.”
The son of an Army captain from Mansfield, Callen volunteered for the draft at age 18 and was sent to Vietnam.
As a civilian, he and wife Lynn raised two children but were never stretched to make ends meet.
His insurance agency of 32 years has been fruitful, prompting Callen to fund about one-third of the charitable endeavor using his own wallet. Public and private donations compose the rest. He’d like to get more corporate donors on board.
Foundation trustee Jerry Jodfrey, a retired Army master sergeant and founder of the Ohio Fallen Heroes Memorial Park in Sunbury, championed Callen’s cause.
“It’s just what drives him,” said Jodfrey, 68. “He understands the military way of life.
“We take care of our own.”
Transactions often play out anonymously. Callen might not speak with a beneficiary or even get a phone number. Still, he has received — and kept — notes reflecting gratitude.
“I will never forget your kindness,” wrote a recipient who, after a military paycheck was delayed, couldn’t pay a month’s rent.
“You’ve helped me way more than you know,” shared another, who was eased out of utility-bill debt.
In a more atypical case, the foundation anonymously sent supermarket gift cards on a recurring basis to a woman whose spouse was killed in action.
Recently remarried, she wrote Callen to say the gesture was no longer necessary — and to thank him.
“It always seemed to arrive when I least expected it but needed it the most. You have touched our lives.”