It may sound like an unlikely combination: Goodwill clothing, a runway fashion show, and veterans who are down on their luck.

But it’s not. First, Goodwill is all about recycling, upcycling, and basically doing anything it can to help the community help Mainers. Second, profits from Goodwill stores fund employment counseling, which is often used by veterans as they adjust to civilian life in the months or years after they return. As a result, Goodwill of Northern New England was acutely aware of the needs of veterans when it created an assistance fund two years ago.

Sometimes vets need more than help finding a job. They might need one-time help with housing payments, utility payments, or – in the case of a World War II veteran – dentures to be able to eat solid food again.

“We’re raising funds to help veterans in need,” said Ben Kamilewicz, who returned from a National Guard tour in Iraq eight years ago and volunteers on Goodwill’s Veterans’ Fund Committee.

“We’re here tonight to replenish our Veterans’ Fund,” Goodwill CEO Anna Eleanor Roosevelt told the crowd gathered at the Little Black Dress Event at Ocean Gateway in Portland.

Since last year’s event, the first to raise money for the Veterans’ Fund, approximately $91,000 had been distributed – all in amounts of $1,000 or less, paid directly to third parties.

“You helped change lives,” Kamilewicz said, speaking to the fashion show runway. “For many, you helped restore their faith in humanity. You helped us to help our veterans in need … so they can achieve their full potential.”

To date, 198 veterans have applied, and 142 have received assistance.

“All year long I’ve watched the applications come in from all over the state,” said Kimberly Curry, Goodwill’s director of community relations. “This is a gap filler, whether they need a pair of glasses or tires to get to their job. It was a long cold winter, so it could be a tank of oil.”

More than 240 people attended the recent Little Black Dress Event at Ocean Gateway in Portland – the vast majority of the women wearing black dresses. Between ticket sales, the silent and live auctions, and bids on Goodwill apparel modeled in the Little Black Dress fashion show, $46,000 was raised for the Veterans’ Fund.

Volunteer models showed off stunning thrift-store finds, all of which were then dry-cleaned by Soap Bubble Laundromat, a veteran-owned Portland business.

“There’s nothing more appealing than the little black dress, and we wanted to put a little spin on it,” said event attendee Connie Jones of Boothbay, dressed in a Victorian madam’s version of the little black dress. Her friends were decked out in a university graduation cap and gown, a nun’s habit, and a Johnny Cash-inspired little black dress.

“It’s fun to come out in a little black dress, bid on silent auction items, and know that the money is going to veterans,” said Fiona Jenson of North Yarmouth.

“It’s really a cool way for us to add one more level of support for veterans,” said Trendy Stanchfield, senior director of mission investment for Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. “And it’s not just Goodwill; it’s about the community supporting veterans.”

Businesses and private donors contributed a wide range of auction items, including vintage French wines, a Beach to Beacon race slot, and a private boat tour to Admiral Peary’s Eagle Island State Park.

“It means a lot to us at Goodwill to know that events like this help our veterans and their families,” said Heather Scott, senior director of workforce services. “It’s a really beautiful thing.”

Goodwill works in collaboration with other veterans’ organizations that may be set up to provide housing or health care-related assistance but not be able to provide gas vouchers or pay for public transit or college application fees.

“It’s a collaborative process and it’s evolving,” Kamilewicz said. “It’s meeting the needs of veterans when they’re down on their luck. We’re looking at the gamut of needs – even as far back as World War II veterans up to present-day Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans. It’s not a huge amount but it’s enough to make a difference.”

After a combat experience, he said, it can take three to seven years to really get acclimated to civilian life.

“When they come back, a lot of veterans struggle to find their place,” Kamilewicz said. “We help to remove barriers so they can re-engage in society.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at: [email protected]