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Supporting veterans from behind bars

Members of the Veteran Group of Ironwood State Prison, with Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta, present a check for $5,000 to the Independence Fund.

Veteran's Group of Ironwood co-founder James White and Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta.

Veteran's Group of Ironwood Chairman Robert Strickland exchanges a handshake with Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta.

TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: It's a tough time for charities. Contributions are less of a priority in family and corporate budgets given the recession. Still, one group of unlikely philanthropists hasn't been fazed by the downturn.

From Blythe, Calif., Sonata Lee Narcisse has the story.


Sonata Lee Narcisse: James White is a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran.

JAMES White: I worked my way up to sergeant, and I was awarded a medal by a general.

For 23 years White has run a charitable organization. But there's one unique thing about his work.

PRISON: Yard is open. Yard is open. Prepare for release.

He does it from behind bars at Ironwood State Prison. White is a founding member of the Veterans Group of Ironwood. About 150 inmates belong to the group, and they've donated more than a quarter of a million dollars in the last decade. They do it... by selling pizzas.

White: And we sell the pizzas to inmates, make a little bit of profit and then all of our money is turned around and given back into the community.

The veterans have permission to do three pizza sales a year. They have a lot of customers -- about 4,000 inmates. And it's not everyday an inmate gets the chance to order their own Domino's Pizza. The veterans group makes about $30,000 a year. About half goes to community groups like Blythe Little League, and the local Girl Scouts. The other half goes to the Independence Fund. That fund provides support for injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan.

David Long is the prison's deputy warden. He's also a former Marine.

DAVID Long: That's the whole mantra of never leaving a comrade behind. You know, going back and taking care of our own as veterans.

Three hours west of Blythe in a Pasadena hotel, Army Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta prepares to give a keynote address. He's speaking to a group that received money from the veterans of Ironwood.

JESSE Acosta: Every time I go up and I speak, it's straight from the heart.

Acosta himself was blinded by a mortar attack while fighting in Iraq. Last year, he heard about the Ironwood veterans' mission and was so moved, he volunteered to serve as the group's outside representative. Back in October he received a check from the veterans for the Independence Fund.

Acosta: When the group introduced a check for $10,000 I was like stunned.

A month later, the Veterans Group of Ironwood presented the Independence Fund with another check for $5,000. The money goes towards high-tech wheelchairs for amputees. Acosta says the inmates' donations make a huge difference in wounded veterans' lives.

Acosta: It means independence. Yeah, they may not have their legs back but you know what? They have a wheelchair that can go upstairs, downstairs. Can go on the beach. Can go up a hill, up a curb.

That kind of freedom is something James White can only dream about at this point in his life. He's serving a life sentence for murder, without the chance of parole. But he sees his charitable work as a small step towards redemption.

White: Just because a guy is in prison, for whatever he did wrong, doesn't make him what he was the day he did whatever crime he did. He may have turned a corner. There's a lot of good guys in here.

In Blythe, Calif., I'm Sonata Lee Narcisse for Marketplace.

Veteran's Group of Ironwood co-founder James White and Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta.

Veteran's Group of Ironwood Chairman Robert Strickland exchanges a handshake with Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta.

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