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Archive for the ‘Veterans’ Category

Finding Hope After Tragedy

American Flag at Half-MastWithout question, the recent church shootings in Charleston were unspeakably tragic. I hesitate to say there could ever be a “silver lining” to an event so heinous, but like the rest of the world I’ve been greatly inspired by the outpouring of love and support from the Charleston community and beyond directed toward the families of those murdered and the larger Mother Emanuel AME congregation. Most poignant, though, were the healing words spoken in court by family members of the fallen, directed at the shooter. As reported by the Washington Post: “One by one, those who chose to speak at a bond hearing did not turn to anger. Instead, while he remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses. ‘I forgive you,’ Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. ‘You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.’”

People experiencing extreme emotional trauma express their feelings in a wide variety of ways. Some respond with anger and dysfunctional or self-destructive behavior. Others turn to their faith and search for the spiritual strength to pull themselves out of the darkness. Forgiveness often can be hard to find – not only forgiveness for the one who caused the pain, but also for one’s self. Grieving people often feel a great deal of personal guilt. Could they have done more to prevent the tragedy, they wonder? Were things left unresolved with the person now departed? Why were they taken and not me?

This sort of “moral injury” is something we at Volunteers of America see all the time among people we serve. Typically, these are not relatives of people who were murdered, but rather veterans still recovering from the horrors of war, or caretakers for a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s who feel helpless to prevent their loved one’s suffering. It is often easier for these people to forgive others than to forgive themselves for all the things they are unable to do. In our efforts to care for America’s most vulnerable, we must focus not only on people’s immediate problems like homelessness or hunger, but also on the underlying spiritual challenges that prevent them from living happy, successful lives. It is only after they confront pain or trauma from the past, and learn to forgive themselves, that people can truly thrive.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

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New Year’s Goals

New Year

I’ve never believed in New Year’s resolutions. The notion that the new year beings a new set of priorities implies a fleeting, fickle approach to life. Just because we’ve entered a new calendar year doesn’t mean that what is important has changed. So many goals in life are long-term projects, requiring a multi-year commitment with constant nurturing and maintenance. That’s why so many resolutions ultimately fail … if exercising or losing weight was truly a priority, this would be as true before January 1st as after. Simply rolling over to a new year doesn’t change who you are or what you find to be important in your core.

For well over a century, our core mission at Volunteers of America has remained steadfast … to help our country’s most vulnerable people so they can ultimately achieve a better life. Year in and year out, this mission never waivers. While the new year may provide an impetus to think about new and better ways to serve our clients, or to plan out strategies that address immediate challenges, the core of our work remains the same.

This is not to say that there are not a few areas of enhanced focus for Volunteers of America now that we’re in 2015. Important legislative priorities for us this year include health and human services, seniors, homelessness, veterans, housing tax credit changes, possible tax reform and the possible change and/or repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Tax reform and the Affordable Care Act are expected to be hot button issues at the beginning of the year.

One early success for the new year came on Jan. 12 when the House of Representatives approved a key piece of legislation benefiting veterans with mental illness, of which Volunteers of America has been a leading supporter – the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. The Senate Veterans Committee quickly followed suit with unanimous approval on Jan. 21. The legislation, named for a decorated Marine veteran who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and committed suicide at age 28, puts in place several policies including collaboration between Veterans Affairs and nonprofit mental health organizations; third-party evaluations of VA mental health and suicide prevention programs; creation of an expanded online resource center and outreach effort for veterans; a three-year pilot program to help veterans transitioning from active duty to civilian life access mental health care; and extension of the one-year eligibility period for certain combat veterans to obtain VA health benefits.

In this New Year’s period of renewal and rebirth, my goal is that Volunteers of America continues to be as a shining beacon of hope and support to those who need us. We must be bold and remove our light from under the metaphorical bushel, not because of a misguided sense of pride, but because that’s what the people we help deserve. Learn more about Volunteers of America’s national network of services and what you can do to support them.

Thank you for your support.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

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Helping Before It’s Too Late

Veteran's Day

This time of year, around Veterans’ Day, we often focus attention on those veterans in the most dire and shocking of situations … those who are homeless, or suffer from untreated PTSD, or are battling addictions. While the help we offer the most vulnerable veterans is very important, we also need to remember others whose problems remain largely in the shadows. These are the veterans who are not yet homeless, but may find themselves without homes if they don’t receive a helping hand. They are the young vets who return from war and battle with joblessness or depression. They haven’t reached the tipping point, but their lives are spiraling in a direction in which they could find themselves in crisis in five or 10 years. At that point, it might be too late to help them.

One program that has been greatly beneficial for veterans who need some additional help to avoid a future crisis situation has been the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, funded by the VA but administered by organizations like Volunteers of America. This program has helped us serve veterans like Hector Salinas, a Marine Corps veteran in Aurora, Colorado who has suffered a series of recent medical problems and was at risk of losing his home.

The past several years have been difficult for Hector and his wife DeeAnna. Chronic health problems and several stays in the hospital forced Hector to leave his construction job. He almost lost a leg to infection and still faces the possibility of more surgeries. DeeAnna has battled cancer since 2005, first in her lungs and eventually moving into her brain. Because neither could work, the family home faced imminent foreclosure. In the summer of 2013, Hector turned to Volunteers of America Colorado Branch looking for financial assistance through SSVF. The financial assistance helped fend off foreclosure, but didn’t provide for needed repairs to the house.

Because of Volunteers of America’s relationship with The Home Depot Foundation, a small army of Team Depot volunteers recently descended on the Salinas home to provide renovations inside and out. The Home Depot donated supplies to repair the Salinas home, including new windows for the entire house, landscaping, appliances, construction of a new backyard patio and fresh interior paint. The volunteer effort was part of The Home Depot Foundation’s “Celebration of Service,” an annual observance from Sept. 11 until Veterans Day during which store associates organize several volunteer hundred activities nationwide aimed at improving housing for veterans and their families.

There are countless veterans like Hector in America today – they may not live on the streets or suffer from visible wounds of war, but they need our help just the same. By lending a hand, they can avoid a much more serious crisis down the road and remain stable, active members of their communities. Learn more about Volunteers of America’s work with veterans.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

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Veteran's Day

In the human service sector, much of our work today focuses on serving veterans struggling with homelessness, PTSD and other barriers that interfere with a successful return to civilian life. While this remains core to our effort, we at Volunteers of America are part of a rapidly growing movement that is engaging veterans to create solutions through opportunity.

For example, we have been piloting a program that leverages veterans as peer advocates who are specifically charged with dismantling barriers plaguing the health and human service sector. This program, the “Battle-Buddy-Bridge” or “B3″, trains, deploys and dispatches veterans as “battle buddies” who engage and provide resource navigation to fellow service members in distress.

While there are a number of peer-to-peer veteran programs throughout the country, Volunteers of America’s B3 efforts are unique because they leverage our well-established partnerships, seasoned expertise and extensive infrastructure. As such, Volunteers of America’s battle buddies have direct access to our network of services including: care coordination, case management, housing, training, employment placement, legal/benefits assistance, financial coaching, counseling and more.

This approach has already proven itself to be successful in transforming the lives of veterans like Nicola, a United States Air Force vet who spent 10 years battling for her VA benefits before she was paired with a battle buddy, Faye Lattimore-Shilling. “I had been told for years that I did not qualify for medical benefits because I was a reservist, ” said Nicola. This quickly changed, though, after Mrs. Shilling started to help Nicola navigate the VA hierarchy. “She verified my benefits … and took me to get my identification card. I could not believe that I was walking out of the office within 10 minutes after taking my picture. I had been given the runaround for years prior to her help! I cannot tell you how grateful I truly am.”

The program has also been tremendously therapeutic for the battle buddies themselves. “Helping other vets who are so much like me has given me more motivation than I’ve had since being in the Army,” said battle buddy John James. “Some days are surreal and I think ‘who am I to be sharing with them what to do when for so long I wouldn’t do it myself.’ I tell them that I was there too, and not very long ago was in the same place they are and it WILL get better. I will continue in the mode of helping and trying to make a difference in the world. I am now open to new adventures and have the confidence to move forward and not live life looking back.”

Veterans as a group are great allies of ours in the health and human services sector. Given this fact, Volunteers of America has long-term interest in creating more and more opportunities for veterans to work with and for us in pursuit of our mission to uplift America’s most vulnerable.

– By Jon Sherin Executive Vice President, Military Communities & Chief Medical Officer Volunteers of America

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PovertySometimes the tasks we take on at Volunteers of America can feel like pushing a boulder up a mountain. We’ve made a name for ourselves by taking on challenges others see as too difficult or even impossible. Standing at the base of a mountain, faced with the lofty heights ahead, many turn around before they even begin their journey. Others, however, feel called to trek on, pushing themselves to venture where few others have gone before.

It’s no wonder that the Bible is filled with verses referencing mountains – both because of their majesty, and because of the physical and metaphorical challenges they pose; 1 Corinthians 13:2 seems especially appropriate to our work: If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

I was reminded again of our efforts to “move mountains” during Volunteers of America’s national conference in Denver this past June. Summits, just beyond one’s reach, are everywhere you turn in Colorado. But moving mountains is what our 16,000 staff members do everyday. They’re constantly striving to reach new heights when it comes to meeting the needs of children, low-income families, the elderly, the homeless, veterans, those with disabilities and the incarcerated.

During the conference, we were treated to screening of “I’ll Be Me,” a soon-to-be released documentary on country legend Glen Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Talk about an uphill battle, but one that he and his family have taken on with love and a great deal of humor. Over the next several months, Volunteers of America affiliates will be working with the film’s producers to host special screenings of the documentary in locations throughout the U.S. as a way to educate others about the work we do to help vulnerable seniors, including many battling Alzheimer’s and other memory ailments. We find inspiration from those words in I Corinthians … when it comes to helping those in need, all the knowledge in the world means nothing if you don’t pair it with love and compassion.

To learn more about the many ways Volunteers of America “moves mountains” to help the most vulnerable, please visit www.voa.org.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

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Working Together Towards a Common Goal for Veterans

Around Memorial Day, there’s always a renewed focus on our service men and women and the sacrifices made by America’s veterans. The focus has been especially intense this year, as Congress and the media turn their attention to the recent controversies concerning the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs. While blame has been directed at the VA, I’m reminded that it’s not just the government’s responsibility to help veterans in need, but everyone’s responsibility … public and private sectors, government, nonprofits and for-profit companies working together toward a common goal.

The men and women of America’s armed forces have fought for freedom in the world’s most dangerous places, from the beaches of Normandy to the mountains of Kandahar. When they return home after years spent in harm’s way, our veterans deserve a home of their own, the support of their loved ones and the ability to earn a decent living. Recent reports by the Veterans’ Administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show that the number of veterans seeking emergency shelter or transitional housing continues to shrink. While it’s certainly encouraging, this drop is overshadowed by a looming catastrophe down the road. Middle-aged vets are moving off the streets, but younger vets from the current wars are only just now starting to demonstrate the mental and addiction disabilities that ultimately lead to homelessness. Many of these young vets remain ignored because their injuries are on the inside, in the form of PTSD and other mental traumas, without any visible disfigurement.

Women veterans have also been under-assisted and at risk historically. They often feel uncomfortable approaching traditionally male-dominated veterans’ organizations for help in times of crisis and suffer silently in the shadows.

Services to veterans should begin before someone reaches a moment of crisis. Volunteers of America is one of many private service providers working on the front lines, in collaboration with government agencies like the VA and HUD, to bring veterans off the streets and provide the help they need. In this age of budget cuts, it is crucial that we protect funding for private organizations that help veterans overcome poverty and the disabilities of battle today instead of waiting for them to sink into homelessness.

We encounter a wealth of opportunity every day to make a difference … one life at a time. Volunteers of America weaves a safety net around veterans that helps return them whole into mainstream society. Thousands of soldiers will be coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we must anticipate their needs. Now is the time to tackle this challenge. Learn more about Volunteers of America’s programs for veterans at www.voa.org/Veterans.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

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They served us, and now we serve them

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For many of us without direct family ties to the military, Veterans Day becomes a time for patriotic observance and general “support for our troops,” but often without the personal, emotional understanding for the experiences of our returning military personnel. Recently, Barbara Banaszynski, who oversees Volunteers of America’s programs for homeless veterans, wrote a letter that was published in USA Today on Veterans Day. The letter beautifully articulated the experiences of countless military families … Barbara’s son served multiple tours in Iraq, and she has a long family connection to the military.

The letter read in part: “A few days ago, I went in search of the grave of my first cousin who was buried with full military honors at Arlington cemetery. I remember him from our childhood as tall, handsome and athletic and a basketball player on his high school team and college team. After college we drifted apart. He went in to the military, me to graduate school. At periodic family gatherings, it would be said that he wasn’t doing well and drifting off to other parts of the country. He suffered several failed marriages and then finally an early death from complications of an organ transplant. Now I know that his life post-Vietnam was rocky and he likely suffered from PTSD and self medicated to cope with his demons. I wish that I had not been so unaware and so busy with my own life that I had taken the time to reach out to my cousin and now it’s too late.

“As we approach Veterans Day, it is not too late for all of us to extend a hand to the men and women returning from 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can do more than honor their service by clapping our hands in the airport. We can extend our hand in friendship and assistance. We can hire these experienced men and women in our businesses and welcome them into our neighborhoods. We can offer assistance to them in enhancing their careers as they have put their careers on hold to protect us. We can urge our government to continue to provide extensive supports and services for those veterans forever changed by their military service.”

Unfortunately, many of the veterans Volunteers of America serves today share experiences similar to those of Barbara’s cousin. It’s our goal to help each of them overcome the personal challenges they face and live successful lives once they return home. They served us, and now we serve them.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

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