Next month, Easterseals will be celebrating 100 years of service to community members living with disabilities or special needs, including veterans and military families.
In Part 1 of this blog series, I talked about the meaning behind Easterseals’ definition of disability and why creating hope for our communities is such a powerful idea.
In THIS blog, I want to dive deeper into our veteran community and highlight why they are so important to the Easterseals family. But first, I would like to share why our services to veterans are important to me, which really boils down to two things. First, my dad was a Korean War veteran, though he served stateside, and he met my mom while he was stationed in Baltimore. Second, I truly believe in Easterseals’ vision, and part of that is working towards “inclusive communities”.
Currently, about one percent of our population serves in the military, and in many ways, military families now are perceived the way people with disabilities were perceived 100 years ago when Edgar Allen founded Easterseals. Separate, different, and frankly, maybe someone to be a little scared of. Just as Edgar Allen saw the perception as wrong and created a revolution to change it; we have the opportunity to change stereotypes of military families by making them a part of our community.
In fact, last year I took part in the inaugural class of the George W. Bush Institute’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program, so I could broaden my personal and professional knowledge and skill sets surrounding veteran services and strengthen Easterseals’ impact on veterans and their families.
To read more about my experience in the Stand-To-Veteran program, feel free to check out these past articles:
- Creating Leaders to Achieve More Together
- Top Five Leadership Lessons from Speakers at the George W. Bush Institute
Q: Easterseals has a lot of programs that serve the veteran community. Why is this community important to Easterseals?
Veterans really matter to us because they are an important part of our community. Easterseals’ affiliate structure allows us to service the needs of our community, and here in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, there are many veterans and military families. If we weren’t serving them, we would not be fully serving our community.
As our Honorary Board Member, Deborah Mullen, shared when she spoke at our Advocacy Awards dinner, “veterans and military family members want what every other American wants: a good job for themselves and their spouse or partner, a good education for their children and a place to call home.” We are all one community with similar goals, and it’s important for Easterseals to support everyone to achieve that.
Often, we serve military families in a program we already have like child development. Also, starting a program for veterans can be a springboard for meeting broader community needs. For example, the vision for the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals is that over time we will have the capabilities to meet the mental health needs of the broader community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates have increased 25 percent in general in the US since 1999. This is a hugely underfunded area, and the suicide epidemic is not just among veterans, but the entire community.
Q: The Washington DC metro area has many organizations that serve veterans. How are Easterseals’ veteran programs unique?
There are a couple of key differences. First, because Easterseals is a community-based organization and not solely a veteran service organization, our focus is on ensuring that veterans and military family members successfully integrate into our community – what they served to protect.
Second, Easterseals is focused on finding ways to innovate to serve the whole family. Many organizations rely solely on government funding for their programs, but Easterseals keeps a balance of philanthropic support, earned revenue, and government funding so that we can really meet community needs.
One example is our Little Warriors program. It provides scholarships so that young children of wounded warriors can attend our child development programs. This ensures that the children will be prepared for school when they reach kindergarten age, while the parents are able to focus on recovery and rehabilitation without worrying about the development of their children. It also enables the parents to become part of the community of other parents with young children. And often being part of the community and having group support can make all the difference.
For example, the Spraul Family has two daughters who attended the Little Warriors program. Unfortunately, their father Wes, a wounded Navy corpsman, took his own life. At that point, Mom Angela feared that her daughters would be removed from the program because government programs for wounded warriors were cut off upon Wes’ death. Of course, during this turbulent time continuity for the children was critical, and because we have philanthropic support we were able to continue to serve the Sprauls in the program.
What was also amazing to Angela was the way the Easterseals community came together to support her family. Other parents from the Center created a website for other parents to sign up to bring meals to Easterseals each day so that Angela wouldn’t have to worry about shopping and cooking. Angela shared that having community support played a major role in helping her stay strong for her girls.
Helping to integrate other Easterseals families with military families encourages the community to see that military families are more similar than different. There is a stereotype out there that every veteran has PTSD and may “go off” at any minute. That’s simply false.
Q: So what areas of veteran services does Easterseals feel makes the most difference?
Our goal is to help veterans re-enter into our communities by delivering high-quality employment and behavioral health care services that treat not just veterans but the entire military family, which I think are core areas.
The truth is unemployment and mental health issues are not physically obvious but can be just as debilitating for veterans and their family members. By supporting the whole person and their entire family, we ensure they succeed at re-entering back into civilian life.
Also, at our Cohen Clinic, we find that more than 60 percent of our clients are actually dealing with issues that pretty much everybody faces, like family and relationships, financial and parenting challenges, and depression and anxiety that come from everyday pressures.
Q: What does supporting the whole person mean? And can you give an example of what that looks like for a veteran?
Supporting a person as a whole tie to our core value of “respect”. It really means listening and understanding the underlying issues that a person faces, not just saying we know what’s best for you. For example, we had a 12-year Army veteran, Mike Inzeo, whose son Mikey was born dead then resuscitated and placed on life support. Many believed Mikey would not make it through the night, but he did. Mikey defied the odds and eventually went home, but he did have severe brain damage. His father Mike worked at night and stayed with his son during the day, so he could help with his therapies, but it was burning him out.
Eventually, Mike and his family decided to seek help and chose Easterseals to be a partner in care for their son. At the time Mike wasn’t even aware of Easterseals military programs. He chose Easterseals because of referrals from Mikey’s support team. As we got to know the Inzeos, we learned that Mike was considering a move overseas to earn more but didn’t want to be separated from Mikey. We connected him with the Veteran Staffing Network and helped him find a better job here in our area. By helping to support his unique child care and employment situations, we supported Mike holistically to achieve a better quality of life.
The same principle applies to veterans facing mental health challenges while they are seeking employment. If someone has mental health issues, it is unlikely they will have a successful job search or be fully successful at work. At the same time, if someone is unemployed it can exacerbate mental health issues. Thus the Veteran Staffing Network and our Cohen Clinic can provide cross-referrals to ensure the holistic needs of a veteran or military family member are met.
Q: How does Easterseals feel about partnering with other organizations in providing services to veterans?
Partnerships are extremely important because there aren’t enough resources to meet ALL the needs of veterans and military families. Different organizations have different skill sets and areas of expertise, which is why we collaborate with other veteran service organizations like Hiring Our Heroes, AMVETS, American Legion and Blue Star Families.
For us, our area of expertise for veterans and military families include providing them with low-to-no cost mental health care, helping to find meaningful employment, offering respite care for the families of wounded warriors, and giving their young children scholarships to attend our early care and education programs.
Collaboration is extremely important for our homeless veteran reintegration programs where our team has to build strong networks with other organizations to address the complex issues homeless veterans face such as housing, health and sometimes substance abuse. Basically, we believe that when organizations work together, we are ensuring our veterans are getting the best possible services and care available to them.
Similar to our adult day services centers, we don’t run group homes because it’s not our area of expertise. However, it’s critical that we partner with them to make sure that individuals who live in group homes have a great experience during the day and that their needs are met.
For child development and therapy, we partner with governments to make sure that we work with them in determining who is best to provide therapy to our children, especially when it comes to different jurisdictions. By working together, we maximize resources and increase efficacy for our families, which is what a community does for each other.
I cannot express enough how incredibly proud I am to be part of that.
More of “A Conversation with Jon” will be available in our April blog post where we will talk about how we plan to innovate to stay relevant to our communities and help those who need Easterseals services the most. For more information about Easterseals life-changing programs for veterans and military families, please go to our website at www.eseal.org.