Service Dogs in Training Provide Therapy for Wounded Warriors

jonA large part of Easterseals’ success in achieving our mission – making profound, positive differences in the daily lives of people of all ages with disabilities, special needs, military backgrounds, and their families – is the collaborations we have with other like-minded organizations.

For National Dog Day (August 26), The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals (Cohen Clinic) and Warrior Canine Connection (WCC) hosted an event together at the clinic to introduce a different type of therapeutic strategy for wounded warriors living with mental health issues: training service dogs.

IMG_2089Two beautiful golden retrievers were introduced to the group by Emily McNeal, a veteran training program manager with Warrior Canine Connection. She was thrilled to introduce these canines to our veterans with the hope of drawing interests to WCC’s Mission Based Trauma Recovery (MBTR) program.

“Warrior Canine Connection’s program is unique in that we not only train service dogs for veterans, we also enlist them in the process,” said Emily McNeal, WCC service dog training instructor. “We deploy passionate and skilled trainers to teach dog psychology and commands using behavioral, cognitive and physical technique training. During the process, veterans are 20190826_115341healing their relationships and families, discovering new ways to express themselves in a positive way, creating bonds working with our dogs and feeling a sense of accomplishment by seeing these dogs placed in a forever home. Through our partnership with the Cohen Clinic, we believe we can reach a greater veteran population of those desiring to continue the mission, seeking purpose since leaving the military, as well as participating in volunteer work that thrives on fulfilling the Warrior Ethos.”

All of WCC’s service dogs, including those in training, are named after veterans and have their own Facebook page. Beverly is 19-months old and was named in honor of USAF Major Beverly Groogan, Ret., who served with the United States Air Force for 20 years.

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J.J. is 16-months old and was named after Jesse Jack Martinez, a U.S. Army Private First Class who died in Iraq in July 2004. Both dogs had the opportunity to interact with our veteran participants in an exercise of being called over, making eye contact, responding to “sit” and then of course—THE REWARD!

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In less than an hour, clearly, all our veteran participants were charmed by Beverly and J.J. and found petting and playing with them to be highly therapeutic. Outreach Manager Mallary Lass, USAF Ret. with the Cohen Clinic said that many of our clients have already been asking us about service dogs, and animals have been known to be extremely helpful within the therapeutic community. This event was an opportunity to bring that to Cohen Clinic clients.

20190826_112742“I am interested in training service dogs because I know it worked for me. My dog was given to me as a therapy dog and she’s been my lifesaver. She helps me with a lot of my issues and I just see this as a great way to give back,” said Derrick, U.S. Army veteran.

All selected service dogs go through an initial training with a puppy parent that lasts about 18 months before moving onto more advanced training. It is estimated that by the time one WCC canine is finished with training, he or she would have helped up to 60 warriors throughout the process.

Warrior Canine Connection utilizes its Mission Based Trauma Recovery model to empower returning combat veterans who have sustained physical and psychological wounds while in service to our country. Based on the concept of warriors helping warriors, WCC’s therapeutic service dog training program is designed to mitigate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other challenges, while giving injured combat veterans a sense of purpose and help in reintegrating back into their families and communities. As part of their training, veterans have the responsibility to teach the dogs that the world is a safe place. Through that process, they must convince themselves of the same.

20190826_123720“This partnership is a win-win for both The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals and the Warrior Canine Connection because it allows both organizations to help our wounded warriors find the best way to bring joy back into their lives. For the Cohen Clinic, helping veterans get better is more than just managing the mental health aspect of it. It is also about helping veterans find wellness, which is just as important,” said Mallary Lass, USAF Ret., Outreach Manager with the Cohen Clinic.

20190826_121115“I’ve been trying to involve myself in more stuff. So when the Cohen Clinic sent me the information, I thought it would be a good chance to work on socializing myself after I came back with my trauma. With this program, I also like that I can be flexible with my commitment and maybe participate once a week. Plus, I like the idea of giving back to the veteran community,” said Natalie, U.S. Army veteran.

Veterans interested in the program can volunteer by working alongside a professional trainer to assist in the training process for a fellow veteran.

The Cohen Clinic is also working with the Warrior Canine Connection on an eight-week training session that will be open to our veteran community. For more information on the session, please contact Outreach Manager Mallary Lass at mlass@eseal.org.

For more on the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals, please go to our website at mfc.eseal.org.

Breaking Down Barriers to Care for Veterans with PTSD

jonFourth of July is coming up and most people spend it outside with their flags raised honoring both the holiday and those serving in the military. What many may not consider is how this display of patriotism may affect a veteran, particularly one with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It is important to note that anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event can develop PTSD, not just military personnel. That said, today’s blog focuses on the impact of PTSD on veterans and military family members.

Studies show that 12.5 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD. However, only half of those with PTSD ever seek treatment. Some symptoms of untreated PTSD include intrusive painful memories, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of reminders and previously enjoyable experiences, depression and anxiety, and in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts or behavior.

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Veterans in our community are not just warriors, they are also parents, spouses, siblings, and members of families who love them and can’t bear to see them suffering. That is why Easterseals partnered with the Cohen Veterans Network to open the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals (Cohen Clinic) in 2017. Our Clinic serves veterans and military family members by providing them with high-quality behavioral health care, regardless of their ability to pay and regardless of their discharge status.

More importantly, the Cohen Clinic treats each client with a holistic approach to address the complex challenges that veterans and military family members might be facing.

anneke croppedTo help provide more insight to veterans living with PTSD, we spoke with Anneke Vandenbroek, Ph.D., ABPP – a licensed clinical psychologist and the lead clinician at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals – who has been working with military service members for over 20 years in the treatment of PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders and other behavioral health disorders. She shares with us HOW the Cohen Clinic is helping veterans break down barriers to get the support they need for PTSD.

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Q: The Cohen Clinic provides evidence-based therapies to help veterans with PTSD. What EXACTLY are evidence-based therapies?

Evidence-based therapies are treatments that have been researched across multiple studies and proven to be effective. Those studies might compare different treatments to each other, or they might compare a treatment to no treatment. Larger studies look at all the evidence across multiple studies to figure out which treatments are most effective. The treatments that are most effective are considered the ‘gold standard’ and that’s what we practice here.

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Q: How effective are evidence-based therapies for treating PTSD?

The two most commonly used, and researched as being the most effective treatments for PTSD, are Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE). Clients can choose either one and do equally well with them.

As for outcomes, studies indicate that about 50 percent of clients with PTSD who are treated with either treatment will no longer meet the criteria for PTSD when treatment is completed. Of the remaining 50 percent, about 60 percent will have significant improvement in their symptoms. This means overall, 80 percent will have a positive outcome from these treatments.

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Q: What can veterans expect to happen during treatment?

CPT consists of twelve 50-minute sessions of individual therapy. It can also be done as a group, but right now we only offer it as an individual treatment. It focuses on the change to thoughts and beliefs that have come about as a result of trauma. We help clients identify and examine those thoughts and beliefs and work to modify them. It’s very focused on improving the thinking aspect of PTSD.

PE consists of 90-minute sessions that vary from 6 to 12 total sessions, depending on the client. This therapy focuses on the avoidance component of PTSD and getting people back to the activities and things they enjoyed prior to the time they had PTSD. So we are looking at addressing the memories and the behaviors that have been avoided because of PTSD. For instance, people may stop going to the grocery store because they are uncomfortable in crowds. PE really focuses on helping people resume those activities that have become difficult for them as a result of the trauma.

Q: What kinds of traumas have been addressed with clients who have PTSD?

We have seen clients with a variety of traumas including combat-related, traumas that healthcare providers may encounter in combat situations or as casualty situations. So, for instance, working on a ship, like The Comfort, and responding to humanitarian disasters or a first responder kind of trauma, like a 9-11. Then there are traumas that result from early childhood abuse, being a victim of a crime or physical assault, as well as other miscellaneous traumas, like a car accident or something similar.

Q: Previously, stigma has been flagged as a major barrier for veterans and military family members when seeking adequate support for PTSD. However, now we are also learning that veterans have a hard time accessing care. Is access becoming more of a barrier than stigma for veterans when trying to get help?

I think the stigma is still a challenge for a lot of people, but we also know that barriers to care make it more difficult for people to get treatment. Barriers could be things like excessive wait times, the expense of coming to treatment, the logistical challenges around travel or times that our services are available.

The Cohen Clinic addresses these things on multiple fronts. For instance, we offer early morning appointments, we have weekend and evening appointments in order to work around people’s schedules. We offer childcare for when people need to come to appointments but have young children. We want to make it easier for them to make their appointments knowing that their children will be cared for while they take care of themselves. The ability to pay for services is not a barrier to care here.

018We also offer telehealth services, which is one of the BIGGEST things we can do to overcome barriers to treatment because people can access care from their living room, office or even a parked car. They don’t have to take time to travel to the clinic. It really only takes 50 minutes out of their day to attend the appointment, so they don’t need to use leave time, travel time, get stuck in Beltway traffic to get here. It’s really fantastic.

Telehealth definitely reduces barriers and make it easier for people to access care. The technology is easy to use. If you can use an app on your smartphone, then you can use telehealth services. And I think it allows people who normally have difficulty accessing care to come in and get treatment.

Overall, it’s really up to the clients to decide what they are comfortable with. They can choose to come in person, connect via telehealth or even try a combination of both. The critical thing is just to be available to them.

Q: Is the quality of care via telehealth as good as in-person?

Telehealth really is an effective way to engage with clients and research shows that it is equally effective. The outcome for clients who engage in telehealth is as good as outcomes for clients who engage in in-person therapy. An additional benefit is that it is so much easier to come to appointments and keep appointments. For example, let’s say one of our clients who normally comes in caught a cold. Instead of canceling his/her appointment, we could still do it via telehealth. Perhaps a schedule change came up and one of our clients now needs to head somewhere else in the area. With telehealth, he/she can still make the appointment.

I also really like it. In some ways, it’s actually easier than an office because I can share handouts and things to the clients immediately. I can show them links to resources online or just share my computer screen. At first, I thought it could be emotionally cold or disconnected, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. I feel I have the same relationships with my clients via telehealth that I do in person. Clients also report a high degree of satisfaction with their services over telehealth.

Q: How does the clinic protect privacy with online therapy?

We use ZOOM, which is a HIPPA compliant, encrypted platform, and is very secure. Every telehealth session has a unique identifier that no one else can use to log in. The client gets a link and they are the only person with that link for the meeting.

Q: Are there any disadvantages to using telehealth for mental health services?

The only disadvantage I can think of with telehealth is that with new technology it can be a little bit challenging for some people. On occasion, there might be some connection problems due to slow internet service or low bandwidth. Usually, there are workarounds when those issues arise.

In order to address that, we always do a telehealth initial check with our data manager. She connects with the clients before the first scheduled appointment to make sure that they know how to use the link that is sent to them and is able to connect via smartphone, tablet, laptop or whatever they are using so that they know how to use it and are ready to go with their sessions.

For more information on how to connect with the Steven A. Cohen Military Family at Easterseals to get help with PTSD or any other related behavioral health support, please go to our website at mfc.eseal.org.

[Part 3] A Conversation with Jon: Reflecting on the Past and Looking to the Future

jonOn April 22nd, we celebrated 100 Years of Service at Easterseals. A milestone I am incredibly proud to be part of in our century-long history.

Easterseals has always been an organization that sees the world differently. When Edgar Allen founded Easterseals in 1919, he didn’t know that the organization would still be changing lives – one person, one family at a time – 100 years later.

Edgar AllenWhat he did know was that it was WRONG to hide children who were “crippled” or different in hospital wards. He knew that each of these individuals could contribute to society and make it better. That they deserved to be included. So he created Easterseals. It could have failed – the public that feared individuals with disabilities could have shunned him.

Instead, he took a risk and established an organization that evolves every day to create a hopeful, INCLUSIVE community where ALL individuals realize their potential and live MEANINGFUL lives.  Edgar Allen led a revolution.

Silver SpringToday, we are one of 71 affiliates across the country providing life-changing services to people of all ages with disabilities, special needs, military backgrounds, and their families in our communities.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series, we discussed how our services allow children with and without disabilities to thrive in their classrooms, help adults with disabilities live a more dignified life and provide veterans and military families facing challenges find a way back to better.

Our support of the individuals and families we serve is not only about providing a service but reflects our commitment to creating hopeful, inclusive communities where all people have the opportunity to achieve their potential and live meaningful lives.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll dive deeper into how the Easterseals’ vision is creating a better society where everyone in our community is 100 percent included in the next century.

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Q: What does creating an inclusive community mean for Easterseals?

Creating an inclusive community simply means integrating people with disabilities and special needs, including veterans and military families, in the broader community, so that we can be a stronger community together. It’s about making sure EVERYBODY has the same opportunities and access to resources they need to participate in all aspects of life to the best of their abilities.

Q: Why is that important? 

Inclusive communities are important to Easterseals and our society because everybody has the right to live, learn, work and play in their communities. It is about creating a real sense of equality for people of all abilities.

DSC_0113We also believe that a critical time for us to learn the importance of inclusion starts at a young age when children are taught social norms. For us, teaching children with and without disabilities in an inclusive classroom setting provides invaluable learning, healthy socialization and growth for all children.

Children with disabilities get the opportunity to learn alongside their classmates and friends rather than in separate classrooms. Typically developing children get the opportunity to learn the value of empathy and diversity, lessons they can carry with them the rest of their lives.

Since a big part of our program is to ensure that kids are prepared for school by the time they are 5-years old, we value the great feedback we receive from kindergarten teachers who tell us that children from Easterseals show impressive social and emotional development— like sitting still during circle time, waiting their turn and showing empathy for other classmates. We attribute all that to our inclusive environment.

Furthermore, inclusion helps children with special needs to achieve the best results. For example, just this week we received this note below from a mom of a child with autism who attends our Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Child Development Center in D.C.: “I am REALLY thrilled with this and with all of Beck’s progress. Honestly, there is no way to thank you all for everything you have done for him and his future. But I will say THANK YOU anyway.”

file-35This came about because the parent had a recent meeting with the public schools to review their recommendations when the child graduates from Easterseals at the end of the summer. When her son (who has Autism) was initially evaluated 2 years ago by the school system, they recommended that he be placed in a self-contained (all special education) classroom with 4 hours of speech therapy a month.  The schools indicated that Beck’s “adaptive, cognitive, social and communication skills were delayed to the extent that they recommended a small classroom size with a small student-to-teacher ratio and an adapted or modified curriculum.

The family turned down that school’s classroom placement and enrolled their son in Easterseals instead where he was placed in a classroom with typically-developing children and receiving services from our early intervention team.

Now, he is a very different child.  He participates independently in daily routines, has great communication skills and most importantly, he has a lot of friends.

After coming to observe and evaluate Beck recently, the school system modified their recommendation and are now recommending a general education classroom with limited special education support and just 2 hours of speech therapy a month.

Q: In addition to inclusion, what role does innovation play in helping Easterseals decide how best to serve its community?

Innovation is one of our core values and it is actually critical to the success of any organization. For Easterseals, we started 100 years ago serving “crippled children” and for many are best known as providing therapy for children who had been disabled by polio. That disease has since been eradicated in the U.S. If our focus had remained on supporting children affected by polio, Easterseals wouldn’t exist today. Yet, we are still around.

To me, innovation means really considering the huge problems society faces and figuring out how we can find new ways to reduce or eliminate those problems. For example, every year in the U.S. there are about a million kids who enter kindergarten at risk of undiagnosed developmental delays or disabilities because they didn’t have access to proper screenings or high-quality early education. In our region alone there are about 50,000 kids a year, which is a huge problem.

Now we are incredibly proud of our child development centers, but opening more centers, which requires raising millions of dollars, is not going to help all those children. So, what we’ve been trying to do is think of ways to exponentially increase our impact and leverage the skills that we’ve built around inclusion.

One of the things we are doing is working with the U.S. Army—one of the largest operators of child development centers in the world – and training their child development personnel on our inclusion model so that we can increase our impact on a larger scale. Each teacher has the potential to directly impact about 25 children a year, and as they interact with the other teachers in their center, it is hundreds of children each year. Just last year, we trained 20 teachers, so we had an impact on thousands of children!

Q: What innovative projects are in place for adults with disabilities?

For adults with disabilities, unemployment and underemployment are critical problems.  Only about a third of working-age adults with disabilities are employed. That means two-thirds are not working, which is a great loss of potential resources.

While there are many programs that provide great training and support, the issue still isn’t fully solved. So we came up with a solution where we can partner with other nonprofits that provide training services and leverage the relationships we already have with employers through the Veteran Staffing Network. The program I am referring to is called EDSN also known as the Easterseals Disability Staffing Network.

IMG_6131We want to provide a more comprehensive solution to employers and increase the percentage of people with disabilities finding meaningful employment. Since we launched more than a year ago, we are proud of the fact that we have helped coached more than 320 people and placed over 100 talented individuals living with disabilities in jobs they can be proud of.

Q: How else has Easterseals exemplified innovation?

It’s always great to highlight wonderful new programs, but a big part of what makes Easterseals so special is the caring nature of our staff, teachers and center directors, who are constantly coming up with new ways to enhance the lives of our participants.

Comcast Assistive Tech - Ms. Penny from Adult Day ServicesRecent examples that come to mind include our registered nurse in the Silver Spring Adult Day Center who came up with new ideas for enhancing our meetings between staff, participants and caregivers so that everybody is fully engaged and is able to give critical feedback.

Also, one of the assistant directors of our child development centers came up with a new process for welcoming new families into the Center, so they could feel more included when they joined. Innovation is not always about something huge and grand like a new program. It’s often something very tactical that can truly make a difference.

Q: As Easterseals looks forward into the future, how will you ensure the organization stays relevant to its community?

With technology constantly changing things, it’s hard to say exactly what direction we will take to stay relevant to our communities. But for us, technology is important in terms of how it can support our work. The key to staying relevant to our communities is still really about listening to what is going on within our communities.

For example, right now we know from studies that 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is projected to be 14 million by 2050. This disease is going to be a huge cost to society and there is no way that all of these people can go into nursing homes.

From our standpoint, we have to create new solutions like medical adult day centers and other ideas that can enable those individuals and their families to get the services they need to be supported without bankrupting the country.

Monumental problems like Alzheimer’s disease are going to require many organizations, governments and forward-thinking individuals working together to come up with viable solutions. And Easterseals has always been good at forging partnerships to bring groups and thought leaders together to solve national problems.

Innovative thinking has always been and will always continue to be a welcome at Easterseals.

For more information on how you can get involved with Easterseals as a volunteer, donor, board/staff member or partner, please go to our website at www.eseal.org.

Highlights from the 2019 Easterseals Advocacy Awards

jonOn May 10, 2019, we gathered at the National Building Museum in D.C. for an incredible night to celebrate 100 Years of Service and honor five inspiring leaders and advocates who embody Easterseals’ mission of making profound and positive differences to people’s lives every day:

Marjorie Morrison, President, CEO and Co-founder of Psych Hub, an online platform with engaging videos about mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention;

General David Goldfein, the 21st Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force and Dawn Goldfein, who have been champions for military families for more than three decades; and

Joseph Martore, CEO of CALIBRE Systems Inc. and Gracia Martore, retired President and CEO of TEGNA Inc. They have been supporting Easterseals programs for children and families for close to a decade.

View More: http://kylebergner.pass.us/2019advocacyawardsAdvocacy Awards Chair Tom Portman and Easterseals Board Chair Robin Portman kicked off the event with a welcome of more than 500 guests and then introduced a powerful video of mother Angela Spraul, who shared how Easterseals supported her family after the passing of her husband, a veteran of the U.S. Navy.

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Later in the evening the story of Kenny Packett, a participant of the Easterseals Adult Day Center, was shared through his mother Thyra. She highlighted how the Center was a godsend for her and Kenny, who has Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that is considered a milder form of Down syndrome.

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The Easterseals Advocacy Awards was not only filled with amazing stories of impact, inspiring imagery and delicious food prepared by Chef Robert Irvine, an Honorary Board Member, but it was also filled with inspiring words by our Advocacy Award recipients.

 

View More: http://kylebergner.pass.us/2019advocacyawards

Marjorie Morrison: “We should never, ever, ever accept that it’s okay to lose more lives at home than on the battlefield. Together, and only together, can we change the current mental health climate.”

General David Goldfein: “There is one obligation as a leader of my institution that I have to get right…our sacred duty, and that is every soldier, sailor, Marine, and Coast Guardsmen that we send into harm’s way to do the nation’s business has got to be properly organized, trained, equipped and well led, courageously led. And when they come home from doing the nation’s business, they come home to their family, who we have taken care of while they were gone. Easterseals helps us perform our sacred duty.”

View More: http://kylebergner.pass.us/2019advocacyawards

Dawn Goldfein: “Because of these programs, you provide hope. Hope to those who have served with courage – under and after fire – to those with visible and invisible wounds, to their spouses who exhibit a special kind of courage and are often the caregivers or advocates for their warrior husband or wife, and to their children. It’s an honor and a privilege to be associated with Easterseals.”

 

Gracia Matore: “Over the years, Joe and I have gotten to know the teachers, the administrators, and the children who benefit every day from their experiences at the Child Development Center. We see how the Center provides opportunities and an environment where children can blossom and thrive.”

Joseph Matore: “We see the Advocacy Award as an honor, but also a challenge to us and to everyone connected to Easterseals to continue being involved, continue to support, and continue to build this organization.”

 

Other honorable presenters and speakers who graced us with their presence include:

Ellyn Dunford, Spouse of General Joseph F. Dunford, USMC, 2017 Advocacy Award Recipient, and Easterseals DC MD VA Ambassador, who presented the award to Marjorie Morrison;

J.R. McDonald, Vice President of Government Affairs, Air Force Programs and Joint Strike Fighter with Lockheed Martin, who presented the award to the Goldfeins;

Charles Mann, Three-Time Super Bowl Champion and Honorary Board Member, and Damani Tichawonna, alumnus of Easterseals Child Development Center in D.C., who presented the award to the Matores;

Juliette Rizzo, Former Miss Wheelchair America and Board Member and Megan Scully, Easterseals Child Development Center Parent, who helped us raise donations from the audience; and

Holleyanne Milley, Spouse of General Mark Milley, USA, 2018 Advocacy Award Recipient and Easterseals DC MD VA Ambassador, who presented gifts to the Advocacy Award Chairs.

View More: http://kylebergner.pass.us/2019advocacyawards

We also presented a Leadership Award, which recognizes non-management staff for their leadership qualities. This year it went to Edythe Holmes, a Lead Teacher who works with our two-year olds helping them to understand the world around them.

By the end of the night, Easterseals had even more to celebrate. Thanks to our sponsors, donors and participants in our silent auction, we raised more than $850,000 to support Easterseals vital programs that serve our community.

Thank you again to all our event sponsors and donors! The night wouldn’t have been a success without you.

And of course, the evening would not have even been possible without the hard work and dedication of our Advocacy Chairs, Steering Committee and Ambassador Committee, as well as our Events, Development, Communications & Marketing and Board Liaison teams.

For months they have worked tirelessly to ensure that EVERY partner, story and detail would help create a wonderful experience where our guests would be able to feel the impact and see the difference that Easterseals makes in the lives of the people we serve every day.

For more images of this amazing night of celebration, check out our Flickr page here.

Now if you missed your chance to attend our Advocacy Awards, don’t worry because the opportunity to get involved or give is ongoing. We also hope to see you next year at our 2020 Advocacy Awards.

To learn more about Easterseals, please go to our website at WWW.ESEAL.ORG.

[Part 2] A Conversation with Jon: Veterans Are a Part of Our Community

jonNext 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:

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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.

Dedication 1For 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.

IMG_5404Eventually, 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.

Bright Stars Presented by M&T Bank Shined for Hundreds of Easterseals Children and Families

jonLast night (Feb 14), Easterseals hosted our signature annual family event – Bright Stars Presented by M&T Bank – featuring Disney on Ice at the Capital One Arena.

Hundreds of children and their families from the Easterseals community came out on this special night to PLAY together and watch an enchanting ice skating performance from their favorite Disney characters. They were also excited by a special appearance from Woody and Jessie of Toy Story, and even Mickey Mouse, at the pre-event VIP reception where many of our guests’ children were treated to face-painting, balloon animals, a caricaturist, and a special Disney photo booth.

For children like Portland Raynor, who lives with a rare neurodevelopmental disorder called HADDS, being at Bright Stars gave her and her family a wonderful opportunity to just have fun and take a break from the everyday challenges of living with a disability or special need.

View More: http://kylebergner.pass.us/bright-stars-2019
Portland and T’Mia Raynor with Mickey Mouse at Easterseals Bright Stars at Disney on Ice Presented by M&T Bank.

Portland attends our Child Development Center in Washington D.C. and learns new skills every day with the help of our wonderful teachers and amazing therapists. Check out her story on WUSA9’s Great Day Washington recently, which shows how she is thriving from our early intervention services and the opportunity to learn in an inclusive classroom setting.

Click HERE to watch the full story.

Military families served by Easterseals also attended the event and were more than thrilled to meet the Disney characters and enjoy the show.

The Pattersons, mom Kristina and her husband Scott, who is on active duty in the Navy, receive 40-hours a month of respite care to help them with their two sons. six-year-old Daniel and four-year-old Micah, both of whom have special needs. The Respite program gives much-needed relief from their caregiving duties so they can manage their own well-being.

View More: http://kylebergner.pass.us/bright-stars-2019
Kristina, Daniel and Micah Patterson with Woody and Jesse at Bright Stars at Disney on Ice Presented by M&T Bank.

In addition to being a super-fun evening for so many families in our community like the Raynors and Pattersons, Bright Stars also helped us raise more than $282,000 to support all our programs that make profound, positive differences in the daily lives of people of all ages with disabilities, special needs, military backgrounds, and their families.

Thank you to all our generous sponsors and donors! A complete list of our Bright Stars sponsors is available HERE.

The fundraising for the event was led by Bright Stars Committee Co-Chairs Cecilia Hodges of M&T Bank and Craig Ruppert of The Ruppert Companies, and Founding Bright Stars Committee Co-Chair David Ross of Atlantic Realty Companies. Their hard work and dedication to Easterseals ensure that our innovative programs and services continue to be available to families who need us the most.

View More: http://kylebergner.pass.us/bright-stars-2019
Thanks to our amazing team of volunteers from M&T Bank!

I’d also like to personally thank M&T Bank, our Presenting Sponsor, who has not only donated generously to Bright Stars for seven years in a row but has also helped staff the event with a team of enthusiastic volunteers every year.

Also, special thanks to our media sponsors – iHeartMedia, Washington Business Journal, WTOP and WUSA9’s Great Day Washington – for all their help in getting the word out about Easterseals and the Bright Stars event. Co-host of Great Day Washington Kristen Berset-Harris even joined us at our reception to emcee the event!

Even though this year’s Bright Stars event is over, the need for Easterseals services does not end. Please consider making a donation to Easterseals today so we can continue to shine like Bright Stars for our community every day.

Click HERE to make a donation!

[Part 1] A Conversation with Jon: Redefining Disability and Creating Hope

jonThis year, Easterseals celebrates 100 years of service to community members living with disabilities or special needs, including military families. Over the last century, Easterseals has evolved from serving only children with disabilities (where we started as the National Society for Crippled Children). We now support all children with high-quality early childhood education and intervention, provide medical and social day care services for adults with disabilities, work with veterans and individuals with special needs to secure meaningful employment, offer respite relief to family caregivers, including those in the military, and give veterans and military families a safe place to come for mental health services regardless of their ability to pay.

In essence, Easterseals has become an irreplaceable resource for our community.

Last year, Easterseals unveiled a new logo and a revitalized brand. The rebrand reflects the evolution of disability in the 21st century—going beyond the physical to include invisible, emotional, social and educational challenges. The new brand addresses these important shifts by bringing clarity to the crucial services Easterseals provides across the lifespan.

As we reflect on what milestones we want to set for the next 100 years, I would like to share some insights on how that journey might unfold. I’ve asked our Communications department to help compile some questions that might be of interest to our community. And I hope my answers will reveal why Easterseals staff and I are passionate about the work we do.

In this three-part interview blog series, I’ll share my thoughts about the meaning behind Easterseals’ definition of disability and hope. I will also talk about why veterans are an important part of the Easterseals community. And lastly, I will touch on why inclusion is important to society and how we plan to innovate to stay relevant to our communities and help those who most need Easterseals services.

For this blog, I will focus on why we want to redefine the definition of disability and why creating hope is such a powerful idea.

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Q: Easterseals wants to change the way the world defines disability. How does Easterseals define it?

What I often see is that people see another’s disability before they see the person and the abilities that person has. I often talk to my friend and board member Juliette Rizzo, who is highly educated and a former Ms. Wheelchair of America. She shared the difficulty she experienced when she was looking for a job. Even with a great educational background, she felt people could not look past her wheelchair when she was pursuing job opportunities.

Watch Juliette Rizzo discuss why she supports people with disabilities.

I think we have the opportunity to change that perspective and get people to see the person and their abilities, and not only the disability. We, at Easterseals, believe that the key to changing mindsets begin with childhood, which is why we focus on early education and inclusive environments where typically developing children are exposed to others with disabilities and special needs. They are observing that even though their friend might need help with something, there are actually lots of things he/she can do, including being a good friend. Starting really young is a very important step.

Today, supporting people with disabilities is more about empowerment and helping them achieve what they want to achieve. For example, in our medical adult day care centers, we practice person-centered care. This means NOT saying, WE know what is best for YOU, but rather we take the time to learn about each individual’s interests and goals, then we work with that individual to provide activities aligned with his/her interests or goals.

We also apply this person-centered approach when working with people in our employment programs. The Veteran Staffing Network and Easterseals Disability Staffing Network help individuals consider their experience, skills and interests, and then we ask: what do you want to do? What do you want to achieve? How can we help you reach that goal? I think it really boils down to one of our core values—respect.

Q: Part of Easterseals’ vision is to create a hopeful community where people can achieve their potential and live meaningful lives. Why is that important?

To me, it really ties back to the way people are defined by their disabilities and working to change that. What creates hope is when we can help people realize their potential and when we can make families feel their loved ones are getting the support they need. Creating hope for society makes for a better world to live in.

Marti and family at Bright Stars
Marti and her family at Bright Stars Night at the Circus.

A good example of this is with one of our ambassadors, who came to us as a young child with Down syndrome. When she first came to our child development center, her parents really did not have a lot of hope. Last year, I was reflecting with her mom and she was saying when Marti was born, she recalls all the doctors telling her doom and gloom scenarios – that her daughter wouldn’t be able to do this or that. Then she came to Easterseals and it was the first time she felt hope for what her daughter COULD DO. Now her daughter is in college.

Creating hope for our participants is also important because it helps them believe in themselves and the things they want to achieve. That’s how it should be for everyone.

Q: What does hope look like for our Adult Day Services clients, many of whom have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?

Many of our participants with Alzheimer’s disease are not usually aware of what is happening around them. In those cases, we are not only providing a safe, caring environment for them, but also giving their caregivers hope and support. Statistics show that caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients tend to have higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses themselves, and have higher mortality rates. Caring for a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is extremely demanding, and for many caretakers it can feel all-consuming. Allowing us to help them care for their loved ones, allows them to care for themselves a bit.

For all of our participants, we provide them with a safe, warm and welcoming environment that they look forward to coming to. And we found that when participants feel joyful, amazing things can happen.

We had a participant name Beth, who came to us while she was already a part of the Montgomery County hospice program. Her husband Roy told us she was expected to live for less than 6 months. Her family chose Easterseals because they didn’t want to put her in a nursing home. They wanted to care for her at home in the evenings, but needed some kind of support during the day. They were really looking for a partner in care.

Hanna with Beth's painting
Beth’s granddaughter, Hanna, poses with her painting.

The amazing part about Beth’s story is that there was a phase in which she couldn’t speak, but she still wanted to participate in activities. Beth really loved art, especially painting. When her daughter was pregnant with her first child, Beth painted a picture  that everyone was convinced was a picture of a baby in a womb. She showed through her painting that even though she couldn’t speak, she knew what was going on. Beth actually ended up living for about 2 years—way beyond what was expected. That’s the power HOPE can have on individuals.

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More of “A Conversation with Jon” will be available in our March blog post where we will talk about why veterans are an important part of our community. For more information about Easterseals life-changing programs for children, adults, veterans and military families, please go to our website at www.eseal.org.

2018 Year in Review

jon2018 has been a fantastic year. We achieved some ambitious goals and launched new programs, and we couldn’t have done it without the incredible support of our donors and partners.

Our biggest accomplishment for the year is the completion of our All Thrive Campaign. Through this comprehensive campaign, we raised $40.4 million in a little over five years. Thank you again to all our supporters for making this possible!

These funds helped us expand our critical programs to serve more people of all ages with disabilities and special needs across D.C., Maryland and Virginia. However, even though we are at the end of this campaign, it is really only the beginning of the next phase of our work where we aim to ensure that every one of us has the resources necessary to live, learn, work and play in our communities. There is still so much to do and your continued support is needed even more.

We are also especially proud of milestones reached over the course of the year, which have helped 6,500 individuals and their families achieve their potential and live meaning lives in a very personalized way, whether it was receiving speech therapy at one of our Child Development Centers, enjoying a trip to a museum organized by one of our Adult Day Centers, or securing meaningful employment through our Veteran Staffing Network.

All these programs and more are how we serve our community on a day-to-day basis with the overall goal of making profound and positive differences in people’s lives every day. With that said, I am happy to share a more expanded look of what we accomplished in 2018.

Have a Happy Holidays and looking forward to continuing our work in the New Year!

2018-Year-in-Review-Infographics---for-blog.jpg

For more information about Easterseals services, please go to our website at eseal.org

EDSN Leads the Way with Disability Employment

jonIt’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the theme is “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.” Easterseals Disability Staffing Network (EDSN) is the social venture employment agency that matches people with disabilities with a wide range of private sector employers, and aims to empower individuals with disabilities to obtain competitive and meaningful work that we launched this summer.

To recognize the importance of empowering people of all abilities, and to educate about the benefits of an inclusive workforce, two members of the EDSN team have shared their personal experiences, and their roles in educating employers and helping individuals with disabilities find meaningful employment.

Vera Damanka is the talent acquisition manager and she spends most of her time reaching out to potential employees, whether through job fairs or partner organizations that provide services to people with disabilities. She has been living with a disability since she was a child and working since she was 14 years-old. While in college, she developed a passion for advocating for more resources, support and accommodations for students with disabilities. By the time an opportunity to work with EDSN came along, she was ready to take on the challenges of actively placing her fellow peers with best matched employers.

EDSN2

Timothy Kirkendall is the business development manager at EDSN and he spends his time building partnerships with private businesses and educating them about the importance and benefits in hiring individuals with disabilities. A former law enforcement officer, veteran, and U.S. Marshal, whose disabilities started developing after serving in Afghanistan, he understands the challenges wounded warriors and individuals with disabilities face when trying to seek meaningful careers. After learning to live with his disabilities and reevaluating what service he could still offer society, he discovered a strong calling towards veteran and disability advocacy.

Q: Why did you choose to work with EDSN?

Vera: I came through a referral from Program Director Deirdre Bulger. We’ve known each other for more than 3 years when she was a disability services coordinator at the college I went to. We previously worked very collaboratively together, since I ran a peer support group for students with chronic illness and disabilities. When Deirdre came to me with the opportunity, I was actually working at the time. However, I was already craving to have more of a direct impact on people in my work rather than being scripted. EDSN seem to be a good opportunity for me to be able to share my own story, so I could empower other people to be able to work competitively.

Timothy: Prior to EDSN, I worked for the Maryland State Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), helping veterans secure a variety of benefits from disability to education, and other services provided by the VA. I found the work to be challenging, but eventually left to find other opportunities around veteran advocacy. I previously met members of the Veteran Staffing Network, who I connected with through LinkedIn, and when I started communicating to my contacts that I was on the market to continue my work of supporting veterans and people with disabilities, I was told about this new position that opened.

Q: What can you share with us about your disabilities? 

Vera: Primarily, I deal with a lot of neuromuscular disabilities with symptoms that mimic an extreme form of fibromyalgia. I previously used a wheelchair to get around campus because the muscle disease was pretty debilitating, but now I use a walker. I also have a few issues with my heart and vascular system, and now also have very bad migraines.

EDSN4

Timothy: My disability is a pretty wide range from having been in combat. I was diagnosed with PTSD, and other subsidiaries that come with that like depression and anxiety, which I have learned to cope with. Also, because of an accident that happened in Afghanistan, I’ve injured my neck, my spine and have bone spurring up and down. I also have a degenerative disk disease in my cervical spine, which has led to some neurological conditions like shaky hands or losing feeling in my arms. Sometimes I also have joint and knee problems. You could say, this car has definitely got some scratches on the paint and miles on it. For my disability, I feel it is important to put it out there because once we make it normal to discuss these kinds of things, it will no longer be viewed with a stigma and fear.

Q: Why is the work of EDSN so important?

Timothy: There are so many advantages that individuals with disabilities add to the workforce. In fact, one of our biggest selling points about our candidates is that many have developed their own strategies for remaining independent, and they are bringing that incredible thinking skill to your jobs. Vera and I are a great example of how the disability workforce can benefit an organization. It’s also time for a paradigm shift to happen for proactively getting more people with disabilities into the workforce. The ADA was passed more than 28 years ago and we are still having this conversation, which means not enough is being done. I also take the time to educate partners on exactly how Easterseals is able to provide us with reasonable accommodation without that much more effort.

Q: How does Easterseals provide you with reasonable accommodation?

Vera: Deirdre is good about giving Timothy and me the license to take care of our health first. She always says that if you are happy and healthy, then you are going to work harder, and the team as a whole will be a lot more successful. For example, she allows for my schedule to be flexible when it comes to my doctor’s appointments. I have a speech to text software installed on my computer, so I don’t have to type everything, and in general I don’t feel intimidated to ask for additional support that will help me feel most comfortable to be able to do my job well.

Timothy: Deirdre has a very extensive history of supporting individuals with disabilities and is very in tune with anything that we need. She doesn’t just think about those things from inside the box. It’s really up for interpretation and nothing is really off the table with her in the realm of reasonable accommodation.

Q: What are the top questions you get from individuals with disabilities seeking employment?

Vera: The number 1 question I get is: will anyone hire me? It’s heartbreaking because it’s the perception that the world may not see them as employable, and that’s just simply not true. For me, it’s a matter of first helping them identify the employers that are willing to hire people with disabilities and make accommodations. Next, I like to focus on ensuring our candidates’ resumes and professional development skills are impeccable, and that they are confident talking about their skills to employers.

EDSN Job Fair

The second question is associated with the fear of losing their disability benefits when they go back to work, which can be income based. We understand that for them to even qualify for those benefits took a great deal of time, so the risk of losing it due to work is a valid fear. But through the Ticket to Work program, many of our candidates can try out working without the fear of losing their benefits. We also have different work incentives throughout the course of the program, which will help allow for benefits to slowly taper off over time. And we have opportunities for expedited reinstatement of disability benefits, if for whatever reason an individual suddenly needs to stop working without having to go through the entire application process.

The third biggest worry is about accommodation and disclosure of their disability. A lot people don’t actually know what accommodation they need. They just know that they need them, and they don’t know how and when to present an employer with that information. These are the things I go over with candidates when they have their one-on-one coaching sessions.

Q: What’s the biggest concerns employers have about hiring individuals with disabilities?

Timothy: Cost is the biggest concern for most employers, especially small businesses. It’s understandable, but that is why we remind them about the tax credits and ADA compliance. We’ve also had companies feel they were doing charity by hiring an individual with a disability, so why should they have to pay to do charity. I remind them that this is not charity. EDSN is sending a qualified individual who has already been vetted and is ready to do the work. All we ask is that the companies interview the individual and see if they meet the qualifications of the job, regardless of their disability. All our candidates are looking for a hand-up, not a handout.

EDSN

The other concerns companies have is usually surrounding the types of disabilities our candidates have. We get questions like: how is it going to affect my business? What are reasonable accommodations? With our candidates, companies have to remember that EDSN would have already done the work by vetting these individuals and sending them best-matched candidates. As for reasonable accommodations, we will work with companies to set that up once a candidate has been accepted.  EDSN is not interested in throwing bodies at jobs, but rather building relationships and setting up our candidates for meaningful work.

Q: What kinds of jobs do EDSN candidates qualify for?

Vera: Literally anything. Hospitality, construction, electrician, mental health counselors, career coaches, judges, litigation assistance, network security specialists, IT, and clerical. We have candidates, who have worked previously for federal agencies with top secret clearances to candidates who have been house- keepers for 22 years and want to continue to do that work.

Timothy: As for employers we talk to everyone. I’ve met with Dell and Microsoft, as well as small mom and pop businesses. I’ve also met potential employers in the legal, medical, IT, janitorial, and hospitality industries. That’s the way I like it because EDSN has to have a portfolio that is as diverse as the community we serve, and no one disability or the individuals that have them is the same.

For more information on the EDSN program for potential employer partners, talent, or the Ticket to Work Program, please go to EDSN.ESEAL.ORG.

Shining a Light on Veteran Suicide

For Suicide Prevention month this September, I would like to share an important guest blog from Tracy Neal-Walden, PhD (Col-Ret), Director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Clinic. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and a retired Air Force Colonel with more than 25 years of experience in mental health treatment, leadership, outreach, and policy.

Tracy-Bio2As a clinical psychologist, the topic of suicide prevention has been a central focus of my practice, research, and overall professional interest. However, as a veteran who served in the military for 24 years, I feel it is important to help shine a light on some critical information surrounding veteran suicide awareness and prevention, which can be a complex challenge for many friends and family members of veterans.

Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a report on veteran suicide and it stated that approximately twenty American veterans take their own lives every day. Veterans, in general, are 21 percent more likely to take their lives than civilians. But what was most alarming about the report is the fact that over the last 13 years the suicide rate among male veterans increased by almost 30 percent, while for female veterans it increased by more than 62 percent.  Moreover, firearms are consistently the most used method of suicide for both male and female veterans.

To understand the reasons behind the increase in veteran suicide, it is important to recognize some of the risk factors related to suicide such as financial issues, relationship difficulties, health concerns, and legal issues such as DUIs. We also know that the risk for suicide increases for someone dealing with multiple risk factors.

In order to be effective with suicide prevention, it is important that friends and family members are aware of subtle changes that may be happening with someone they think may be experiencing difficulty and who served in the military. You don’t have to inquire about the details, but you could ask, “Are you ok? You don’t seem like yourself.” Alternatively, you can just say, “I know that you have a lot going on in your life right now, but I’m here if you want to talk.”  Moreover, it is important to check back in with the person even after you believe that their issue is resolved. This is important because is it often assumed that someone is doing better because they may appear as if everything is fine.

Another important preventive measure, especially for veterans, is reducing access to means, such as firearms.  If you know of someone, who is at risk, ask if they have access to weapons and help them to find a method to secure it, such as giving the weapon to a friend, securing it and any ammunition at two separate locations, locking the weapon in the base armory, if they have access to one.

To learn more about Suicide Prevention and Awareness, check out the following videos by the Cohen Veterans Network:

On Saturdays, September 29 and October 20, we are organizing a team for the “Out of the Darkness” Community Walks to help raise awareness and funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which supports survivors of suicide loss. More information is available here.

If you know of a veteran needing help, please encourage them to contact The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals at (240)-847-7500. We provide mental health services to any veteran who served in the U.S. Armed Services, including National Guard and Reserves and regardless of role, length of service or discharge status. We also provide services to their family members and regardless of their ability to pay.