Nonprofit founder chooses joy and speaks life to veterans in Orange County
When Penny Lambright was a kid, the youngest of five siblings, her family called her Sarge because she was a take-action kind of girl. Also when she was a kid, her U.S. Marine dad who had fought in WWII and Korea had a raging case of post-traumatic stress disorder, often trying to bayonet her mom when he was in the throes of nightmares.
Put that together and it’s perhaps not surprising then that when she later inherited $125,000, about the time her Army nephew came to her asking for help for his unit, she put every penny into founding an organization for vets in need — Patriots and Paws.
The charity operates out of a giant warehouse in Anaheim. Basically, Lambright collects donated household items, such as gently used sofas and sheets and silverware, and invites vets in to “shop.”
“It’s like a thrift store on steroids,” she says. A thrift store where everything is free.
To see the lives she has changed, visit the Patriots and Paws’ YouTube channel, where a few hundred vets give thanks.
It all started in 2010, after Lambright’s nephew Sam returned home from his second deployment to the Middle East. He told his aunt that his unit compatriots were coming home broke and needed help.
“I said ‘OK,’” says Lambright, now 58. “I had no idea what that meant.”
At the time she was running a professional organizer company called Clutter Cleaners out of Huntington Beach.
Her mother had recently died, and Lambright was left $125,000. Using the inheritance, she rented a storage unit in Fountain Valley. It quickly filled up with donated items so she rented another. And then another. Six stuffed units later she moved the whole operation to a warehouse in Orange. Two years ago she upgraded to the 7,700-square-foot warehouse in Anaheim.
It’s a beehive of activity. A chopper the Vietnam Vets of American Chapter 1024 takes to parades is parked in the yard. Trucks pull up to be loaded and unloaded. Vets wander the aisles of furniture and coffeemakers.
Lambright says she has helped more than 8,000 vets since starting the nonprofit. And she takes pride that the pandemic has not slowed her down.
“We’ve done over 1,000 pickups this year,” she says. “We have not stopped seeing families or closed one day due to COVID.”
Some of the vets she helped have returned to volunteer, including Marine Frank Contreras.
“My wife and I were homeless in 2017 and we had nothing; no silverware, no plates,” said Contreras, 59. When they finally got into an apartment, “Penny hooked us up with everything we needed. Without her, we’d still be sleeping on the floor.”
Lambright said spending her inheritance on others “wasn’t even a thought.” She was, however, surprised the money ran out so soon. A few years into the adventure she gave up her rental house in Orange and moved to the warehouse — with her three rescue dogs and her Harley — just so she could keep the nonprofit running.
“This is my everything,” she explains, although she still owns Clutter Cleaners and teaches an extension class on getting organized at Cal State Fullerton.
She has since moved out of the warehouse and today rents a place in Tustin where she lives with a couple of roommates and her pit bull, Jake.
This is where the “paws” in Patriots and Paws comes in. Lambright believes dogs rescue us as much as we rescue them. So part of her mission is to work with animal rescue groups to pair vets with dogs.
“You can tell your dog anything a hundred times and there’s no judgment,” she says. “They’ll just lick your face and say, ‘OK, it’s all good.’ ”
No judgment is a way to describe Lambright herself, friends and volunteers say.
A Navy vet who doesn’t want her name printed because of domestic safety issues decorated her entire low-income housing unit from Patriots and Paws. She found a dryer, beds for her kids, dressers, quilts — and a friend.
“Penny shows more kindness than most people out there do,” the woman said.
Lambright said she was simply taught to be of service from a young age.
“Every day I get up and I think how can I take care of my veterans?” she says. “Every day is a good day that I’m serving them.”
Tattooed onto the inside of her left wrist are the words “Choose Joy,” a reminder to herself to stay positive. On the outside of her wrist is “Speak Life.”
“I try to speak life into people, say things to build them up,” she says. “Some of the vets, when they come in here they’re angry and they’re mad. I tell them, ‘We’re going to make lemonade out of your lemons.’”
Negativity is not permitted.
“We don’t let drama in here,” she says. “It’s a drama-free zone.”
Outside, next to the chopper, Lambright has built a fence out of pallets that she calls the “Leave Your Burden Behind” wall. Vets are invited to pick up a sharpie and write a message.
“Whatever it is you’re carrying, go ahead and write it on that wall and leave it behind,” she tells them. “It’s pretty amazing to read. There’s a lot of forgiveness; forgiving other people and forgiving themselves. I am completely humbled by what people are dealing with.”
Pam Mehl has been friends with Lambright since Edison High School in Huntington Beach and although she lives in Santa Maria now, she drives down at least several weekends a year to volunteer.
“Penny’s about as real as it gets,” she says. “She was always the friend who was gonna help somebody with something. That person you could count on.”
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