If you visit Chick-fil-A in Brooksville, you may notice a kind gentleman seated in one of the corner booths, with a smile and a display of uniformed teddy bears ready to spread sunshine in the lives of those who visit. Especially the veterans of Hernando County. Bob Santoro, also known as Mr. Bob and the Teddy Bear Marine, has been visiting this restaurant every morning for the past eight years–often welcoming guests, like veterans and homeless people, who need his aid.
Some people may need his help to complete an important application for government aid. Another might require a meal, a tent, a backpack, a sleeping bag, or clothes; which he purchases for them with his own funds. Some just need a listening ear. “It has always been my calling to serve,” said this retired Marine.
Throughout the years, Mr. Bob has found numerous and plenty of ways to reach and serve veterans or those in the military. He was a chaplain in service of the Core, then a volunteer who ventured into the woods to reach out to homeless vets in need. After suffering a series of severe cardiac events that included a heart attack and a stroke, Mr. Bob had to cease his outreach, but he refused to stop helping. “I’m here every day that Chick-fil-A is open, Monday through Saturday,” he said. “10:30 am to 3 pm.”
Mr. Bob continues to battle health problems and keeps a ventilation machine beside him in his booth. “They’ve carried me out of here on a stretcher,” he said. “But even if I don’t feel well, I always show up here. Because there might be a veteran out there who feels worse. What will happen to them if I’m not there?”
Mr. Bob is always there, drawing people to his booth with his display of uniformed teddy bears representing various branches of the service. He sometimes will greet passersby wearing Marine merchandise, expressing his kinship and encouraging them to “Feel free to come talk to me if you have a need.” Whether helping a veteran prepare a complicated government form to secure needed financial aid, or listening as they share painful memories regarding their time at war.
All find comfort and support in the company of Mr. Bob, including former Brooksville resident Joseph Antonelli. “I am writing to you about a man who has been quietly helping people in Hernando County for many years. I met Bob while I was homeless and living in the woods. He bought me a tent, sleeping bag and work boots so I could work out of a labor pool. Before his 2 heart attacks he used to go into the woods. Sometimes he would spend hours just communicating with us. He is an excellent listener. Notice that I said communicating, not just talking. It was obvious to us that he truly understood us,” Antonelli wrote.
“Over the years he has bought countless tents, sleeping bags and other things for us. He did this out of his own money,” Antonelli continued. “On several occasions I went with him to pick up donations of all kinds. He helped vets get on the VASH program for homeless vets, then he got furniture for them and other household items. I have seen him sit and cry with other vets who needed someone to share their pain.”
In the future, Mr. Bob hopes to continue sharing with and giving to all who need him. He is also expanding his ministry of helping and healing to include a female volunteer who could help female veterans struggling with different varieties of PTSD. Those interested can drop by Chick-fil-A and look for the table adorned by the teddy bears. Mr. Bob will be there.