Connecting Veteran Services at Easter Seals
Pictured left to right, back row: Tim Duening, director, U.S. Navy (ret.); Pat Nowak, job developer, U.S. Air Force (ret.); Chris Macklin, U.S. Army (ret.) received employment services; and Jason Vinson, Community OneSource specialist, U.S. Marine Corps (ret.). Front row: Jessica Zeller, Community OneSource specialist, U.S. Navy (ret.) and Nita Renfrow, job developer.
Photo by Wes Battoclette
“I went through it,” says Tim Duening, director of Veteran Services at Easter Seals TriState. “I was on active duty for 26 years and then suddenly I wasn’t going to work—no mission, no camaraderie. For the first few weeks it was great, like I was on leave. But after a month it began to feel strange.”
Duening’s experience of malaise isn’t uncommon. More than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have finally come to an end. For veterans of those wars everything of recent memory carries the taste of struggle and hardship. As they attempt reintegration into society, they are faced with the challenge of moving past their experiences. Failure to do so can magnify feelings of alienation.
“We know veterans are coming home in large numbers,” says David Dreith, executive vice president of Easter Seals TriState. “We know the current crop of veterans is the highest educated and most diverse in the service. But we also know they are not as likely to reach out for assistance.”
In 2013, Easter Seals TriState initiated Operation Vets THRIVE with the goal of helping these military veterans. Operation Vets THRIVE began with a three-year program grant from the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr. /US Bank Foundation and The Farmer Family Foundation independently. For help in formalizing a strategy, Easter Seals turned to Dave Sutherland.
Sutherland, a retired colonel in the Army, created the Dixon Center to tie together the patchwork of veteran services offered around the nation. Looking to do the same on a local level with Operation Vets THRIVE, Easter Seals began working with the Dixon Center in 2013.
The need for organizations like Operation Vets THRIVE is immense. A study from 2012 reports 1 in 5 homeless people are veterans. Sutherland’s own research indicates another alarming trend. “He found that after every major conflict there is a five-year lag between the conflict’s conclusion and a serious uptick in veteran homelessness. So in three-to-five years we are going to see a similar uptick unless we do something,” says Duening.
Sutherland was eager to add his experience to Easter Seals. He helped develop a roadmap for Operation Vets THRIVE, which consists of a three-pronged approach. The first is a series of communal meetings called 'convenings.'
“We get as many people in the room as we can, whether they already provide services to veterans, want to provide services or simply want to be in the conversation,” says Duening. Operation Vets THRIVE had three such convenings in 2014. “Each convening had a different focus. Upon Sutherland’s recommendation, at the first we broke the problem up into different areas. We came up with five: employment, education, healthcare, housing and family services.”
The remaining two prongs of the roadmap created with Sutherland's help are more operational: a community referral line and an employment services program. The premise of the referral line is that the success of veterans often depends on their ability to access their benefits. This task is more complex than it sounds. Veterans stand to benefit from an array of organizations, yet these organizations’ good-intentioned offerings are often poorly connected. Veterans regularly fall through cracks between the services. Those with multiple needs are rarely able to satisfy all of them in one place, thus diminishing the prospect that any will be satisfied at all. Bridging what Sutherland calls “the sea of good will,” or this miscellany of uncoordinated service organizations, is a necessity.
The Operation Vets THRIVE referral line tackles this problem. Staffed by veterans, it responds to myriad requests, including those concerning caregiver resources, financial assistance, legal aid, healthcare options, counseling services and education benefits information. Veterans and families of veterans that request information or assistance are presented with the public, private and not-for-profit resources most suited to their needs.
The employment-services program employs two individuals that connect vets to employment opportunities. “They are also out in the community every day trying to find where these jobs are, trying to convince employers to hire vets,” says Duening.
The job of convincing employers to hire veterans is often about education. “Employers don’t understand military jargon. They look at a veteran’s resume and they aren’t able to interpret it,” Duening says. But overcoming the education gap is worthwhile, he stresses, because employers get healthy, punctual, team-first, mission-oriented, outside-the-box thinkers.
The interplay of these three approaches is changing the landscape for veterans in Greater Cincinnati. “Organizations are now working together at an unprecedented level,” says Dreith.
For example, the referral line might receive a call requesting dental care. Staffers will try to see why the individual might need this so they can address the problems in a holistic manner. Or:
“The referral line will take a call about someone needing food and ask whether they have a job,” Duening says. "If they don’t, the caller will be connected to the employment office. Or if someone calls the employment office looking for a job, we will refer them to the OneSource if they have other needs. It’s a unified approach.”
There are many success stories. A student veteran attending the University of Cincinnati on the G.I. Bill called because his paperwork was filed improperly. He couldn’t buy food or gas and he was about to be evicted from his apartment because he was too ashamed to talk to his landlord. “We connected him with a resource that got him a Kroger card and a Shell gas card, and we called his landlord and worked his rent out,” Duening says. “By the Friday of the week he contacted me, his life was back in order.”
In another instance, a veteran who moved back to Cincinnati with his wife and kids had found an apartment but had not yet moved into it. He called to say his benefits checks had stopped when the government shut down in 2013.
“He had to live in a shelter separated from his family,” Duening says. “He had no money for food, he couldn’t pay his car insurance or his phone bill. We found organizations that filled the gap until he got paid, and we also helped both him and his wife find a job.”
This case demonstrates the unique needs of veterans, who mostly require only a push in the right direction. “Sometimes they just aren’t familiar with how the civilian world works,” Dreith says. “They are used to the military world where things work automatically. But the other side of it is that when you get them a job they’re good to go.”
Easter Seals hopes to make the process of veterans reintegrating into the community as seamless as possible. This is imperative because veterans returning from combat can get frustrated when they open a door and it doesn’t lead anywhere, causing them to fall through those parlous cracks in the system.
“We are building a community approach without a single point of entry, so if a veteran connects to a veteran service organization they can get connected to the entire network as well,” explains Dreith. “It’s impossible to make every door the right door in every instance, but what we can do is make sure that no door is ever the wrong one.”
Easter Seals TriState is headquartered at 2901 Gilbert Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45206. You can reach them at 513.281.2316 or visit their website at www.eastersealstristate.org.
Operation Vets THRIVE is located at 447 Morgan Street, Cincinnati, OH 45206. You can reach them at 513.878.2200 or visit their website at www.operationvetsthrive.org.