FEATURE— Veterans Affairs’ Voluntary Services: Serving Those Who’ve Served
Providing medical care for our nation’s veterans is no small task. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) serves 8.76 million veterans per year at more than 1700 sites of care, providing physical and mental health services “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.”
A large component of FRA’s legislative efforts focuses on ensuring the needs of our nation’s veterans are met and that there is adequate funding to provide these necessary services. But FRA’s support of the VA doesn’t stop with our legislative advocacy. FRA shipmates are among the more than 131,000 volunteers who share their time, skills and resources through the department’s Voluntary Service programs.
The Department of Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service (VAVS) program allows the department to broaden and improve its care of veterans by utilizing volunteers to augment staff in setting such as hospital wards, VA Community Living Centers, outpatient clinics, end-of-life care and respite care programs, adaptive sports and creative arts programs, outreach centers, national cemeteries and veterans’ benefit offices. Since the program’s inception in 1946, VAVS volunteers have contributed more than 771.4 million hours of service. According to VAVS calculations, there were 131,739 volunteers in the program during FY 2014, with 76,391 active VAVS volunteers contributing a total of 11,126,202 hours. That equates to 5,918 full-time employee positions and, at an average hourly rate of $22.55, more than $250 million! VAVS volunteers and their organizations also contributed nearly $71 million in gifts and donations during FY 2014 for a total value of $325.8 million in volunteer giving!
This is a phenomenal and very tangible contribution to our veterans, particularly in the current budget climate, but it’s about more than the monetary value of these volunteers’ efforts. It’s impossible to put a price tag on the caring and sharing these volunteers provide to veteran patients.
“The VAVS program presents opportunities for veterans to know and believe there is a community of support behind them, in addition to the staff and medical professionals,” explains Sabrina Clark, director of Voluntary Service at the VA’s Central Office in Washington, D.C. “If I were a veteran and saw the tremendous support these volunteers contribute by donating their time, talents and resources, it would lead me to believe that my military service was valued. The VAVS program offers that opportunity to serve.”
“The VA is all about the veteran, and helping veterans helps the VA,” adds Stephanie Burns, the chief of Voluntary Service at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center. “Much like FRA, we want to make sure veterans are taken care of. Many of our volunteers are veterans themselves, so it’s very much a veteran-serving-veteran kind of thing. Our volunteers bring a special touch to whatever they do. Even if it’s just offering a kind word or friendly smile, our volunteers have a direct impact on those we serve. When a veteran comes to one of the our awesome medical care centers, and sees it filled with smiling volunteers who are ready to assist or escort them where they need to go, it warms their hearts. They understand the volunteers aren’t paid, but are simply people who want to give back.”
VAVS Purpose/Connection with the Community
VAVS has been helping veterans and the VA since 1946 and is one of the largest volunteer programs in the federal government. VAVS administrators, like Clark and Burns, help coordinate volunteers and their efforts around the globe.
“It’s the VA’s job to touch patients in the world and our [VAVS] office exists to support those who are doing just that in VA medical and program centers. We develop policy and guidance for volunteers in the field. We work to make sure our patients’ needs are met through the involvement of volunteers, integrate the volunteers’ insights into what’s going on and find ways we can improve the experience for both patients and volunteers,” explains Clark, who has worked with the VA in a variety of capacities for the past 23 years. “Our office plays an important role as an advocate and communications conduit to increase the potential for the VAVS program to generate positive outcomes.”
Providing that connection between the community and the VA is critical to the VAVS mission. Ensuring the flow of information goes in both directions is vital to improving VA services and facilities, making sure vets in the community know what services are available to them and how to receive them.
“VAVS’s importance is two-fold. We are a liaison to the community,” emphasizes Burns. “We know what VA is about and we can share that with past, present and future veterans in the community. The program also helps us understand the needs of the veterans in the community and what our veterans and volunteers are thinking. We can also let the community know about the VA’s needs. Whether it’s working to improve access to care or asking a corporate entity to provide a grill for one of our facilities, the VAVS program is a two-way street when it comes to communication.”
“It’s very important for us to hear about the veterans’ needs and how they’d like to be served,” adds Clark. “We have target populations that come to us by way of family or friends or veteran service organizations (VSOs) like FRA. The volunteers are a built-in communications vehicle to share what’s going on in the VA. The volunteers also offer an opportunity for us to listen and learn from the community. We’re very open to the insights and challenges of the veteran community and those who care for vets.”
Anyone Can Volunteer
“Anyone can volunteer, but members of FRA or any VSO can become representatives or deputy representatives on their local VAVS Committee,” encourages Burns. “The VAVS committees meet quarterly and vote on things happening at the medical center. The volunteers have a voice and know that their efforts are being recognized at the local and national level. Come to one of the meeting and see what it’s all about. The meetings only take place four times a year, so it’s not too terribly time-consuming.”
But you needn’t be an FRA shipmate or a veteran to be involved. Volunteering can take many forms and a wide variety of skills and talents are welcome. To become a VAVS volunteer, you simply have to let your interest be known.
“If an FRA member … or anyone … has a desire to volunteer or be of service, I urge them to make that desire known at a VA facility or online at www.volunteer.va.gov,” says Clark. “If you don’t want to travel, we can find opportunities for you in your home or neighborhood. Have limited time or resources to contribute? That’s fine. We can be very flexible and adaptable. We invite anyone and everyone to simply let us know what they’re looking for and we’ll customize an opportunity that allows each volunteer to use his or her gifts, skills and talents in a way that meets the needs of the veterans, the VA and the volunteer. Our goal is to keep our volunteers engaged and interested.”
“We really try to make sure that each volunteer is matched to an assignment that suits him/her and that all our volunteers are happy in their placements,” continues Burns. “We know a happy volunteer is likely to stay with us, and is the best way to get more volunteers. Those who are interested are welcome to tour their local VA facility and try out different volunteering avenues. We spend 15 or 20 minutes interviewing each prospective volunteer and talking about the wide variety of opportunities that are available. We can be very flexible and try to find the very best placement. I encourage everyone to give it a try. Come out and see what it’s like!”
And the volunteers benefit, too. “It feels good to know you’re doing something purposeful and we try to reinforce that by providing recognition from the VA and from others,” Burns adds. “VAVS volunteers know they have an organization looking out for them. We rally around our volunteers.”
Ways to Help
The VAVS program offers a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for corporate entities, civic groups (like FRA branches and Auxiliary units), as well as individuals of all ages.
The VAVS staff at local VA facilities is happy to help establish company-sponsored volunteer programs that put employees’ talents to good use “serving those who have served.” Such programs can be tailored to each company in ways that offer opportunities for individual employees or groups to use their existing skills in new ways or develop new skills.
Student Volunteer Programs
Student volunteers are an important part of the VA medical centers’ treatment team as they support the VAVS program. The Student Volunteer Program allows young people to gain experience in a healthcare environment and explore healthcare career options that will benefit them in applying for college and jobs. Like all VAVS programs, student volunteers are selected according to the needs of the medical center, assignment preference and skills. Training is provided by Voluntary Service at each medical facility and the supervisor of the department to which volunteers are assigned. VAVS student volunteers may also qualify for the James H. Parke Memorial Youth Scholarship, which is funded in part by financial contributions from FRA and other VSOs.
National Salute to Veterans
The week of February 14 each year provides a special opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to the more than 98,000 veterans of the U.S. armed services who are cared for every day in VA medical centers, outpatient clinics, domiciles and nursing homes. During the National Salute to Veterans, VA invites individuals, veterans groups, military personnel, civic organizations, businesses, schools, local media, celebrities and sports stars to participate in a variety of activities at VA medical centers. The activities and events are perfect opportunities for shipmates, FRA branches and Auxiliary units to visit hospital wards and distribute valentines and other activities that include photo opportunities; school essay contests; special recreation activities and veteran recognition programs. Selected cities also host concerts that are free to veterans and their families, and the week is a great way for the community to get acquainted with volunteer opportunities within the local VA facility. It’s not too early to start thinking of ways you can get involved next February!
President’s United We Serve Program
VAVS has joined President Barack Obama’s United We Serve (UWS) initiative and is committed to engaging American citizens in service during the summer months to provide lasting benefits to the veterans and communities in which they live. Various VA facilities around the country offer four volunteer programs under the UWS umbrella:
• Stand Down for Homeless Veterans: The VA is the only federal agency that provides substantial hands-on assistance directly to homeless persons and, although limited to veterans and their dependents, the department’s programs constitute the largest integrated network of homeless treatment and assistance services in the country. Many VA centers offer outreach and support programs that can use the assistance of volunteers.
“Volunteers have a direct impact on veterans and our VAVS amenities, programs and events create those tangible results,” says Burns. “Our Winterhaven Homeless Stand Down is a perfect example. We open our doors on a Saturday to provide an array of services for homeless veterans. In the weeks leading up to the event, our social workers and outreach teams go to shelters, street corners and under bridges and let homeless veterans know about the event and that we want to help. We provide transportation to get these folks to our facility, where they’ll get a hot breakfast, update their VA eligibility, receive a head-to-toe health screening that includes dentistry, audiology, mental, podiatry and HIV screenings. And we don’t let them leave without offering them a hot lunch. This is the 21st year we’ve done this event in D.C., but similar events happen all over the country.
“We also combine our efforts with community partners, including housing agencies, employers and VSOs who can help with claims processing. We have reps from the Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA) and National Cemetery Administration (NCA) and we’re also supported by other federal agencies and private companies,” she continued. “HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] held a boot drive so we were able to give shoes to many of these vets. Zips Dry Cleaners held a clothing drive, collecting and cleaning winter coats. VAVS also enlisted the help of these volunteers and VSOs to spread the word about the coat and boot drives. We received more than $300,000 in donations and were able to help 700 veterans, all thanks to the support of volunteers. VAVS is how these events happen and the veterans feel the direct impact of these programs. We hope they will spread the word about the care they receive and encourage the community to be a part of the VA.”
• VA National Cemetery Volunteer: The National Cemetery Administration honors veterans with final resting places in national shrines and with lasting tributes that commemorate their service to our nation. Volunteers can assist with administrative and grounds-keeping services, as well as offering military honors to fallen veterans.
• VA Volunteer Transportation Network: Changes in the level of funding for the Beneficiary Travel program led the VA to establish the VA Volunteer Transportation Network (VTN), which permits volunteers to provide needed transportation for veterans seeking services from a VA facility and/or authorized facility. The program allows volunteers to use a privately-owned conveyance or a government-owned vehicle, including donated vehicles, county vehicles, DAV Department (State) or Chapter (local) vehicles, public transportation and contracted transportation to get vets to their medical appointments.
• VA Welcome Home Celebrations: VA sponsors Welcome Home events around the country for military service members who are returning from deployments and their families, as a way to honor their service. The events are open to all veterans and are celebrations of their dedication and service to our country, usually including music, food, fun and important information that will help make each service member’s transition from active military status as seamless as possible.
“We’d love for folks to help us spread the word about United We Serve and volunteer opportunities with VA,” adds Clark. “There’s a very useful fact sheet available online at www.volunteer.va.gov/docs/UWSFactSheet.pdf and we invite FRA Today readers to print and distribute it to their family, friends, schools, churches, FRA branches and other organizations. America’s veterans will appreciate it.”
Need for New Volunteers
The need for volunteers increases in direct proportion to the growth of our veteran population, and there are many challenges to maintaining a vibrant and able consortium of volunteers. Some challenges are universal, while others are more localized.
Burns, who has worked at the D.C. Medical Center for the past 12 years, describes an interesting dynamic that exists at the facility. “We treat vets from the D.C. area, which includes southern Maryland and northern Virginia, so we want volunteers from the same area. D.C. is populated with a lot of workaholics and they have little free time to volunteer. Also the D.C. facility isn’t particularly accessible by public transportation and transportation presents a problem, not only for our patients, but also for our volunteers. Many folks might be willing to volunteer, but are discouraged by the prospect of driving in the metro area traffic. These workaholics also tend to retire later, so our volunteer population is aging.”
An aging volunteer population isn’t unique to D.C., according to Clark. “The overall VAVS pool of current volunteers is aging, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Our older volunteers may move a little slower, have transportation challenges or have health concerns of their own that prevent them from volunteering as much as they’d like, so that’s a challenge,” she explains. “We work to find ways for them to volunteer from home or contribute in the best ways they are able and we’re tremendously grateful for their commitment. We really depend on these older volunteers to tell their story and help mentor and perpetuate that culture of service among younger volunteers. Many are veterans themselves and that creates a wonderful opportunity for them share and continue that rich tradition and history of service that began with their own military service. We’re very reliant on volunteers from our veteran service organizations like FRA and want to continue to build those relationships. We want to make sure they understand we value their contributions and value them as individuals.
“We are strategically and deliberately working to find new volunteers … of any age … from different walks of life and other arenas and organizations than we’ve traditionally tapped. Our VSO volunteers are so valuable and use the past to inform the next generation of volunteers as we build for the future.
We’re also looking at a broader scope of sources, such as corporations and businesses with a service component that we haven’t traditionally tapped into,” Clark continues.
If you’d like to learn more about VAVS opportunities, visit www.volunteer.va.gov and complete the online form. Those without Internet access can contact their local VA facility and ask to speak with someone in Voluntary Services.
“It’s not just nice; it’s necessary.”
To advance the mission of the VAVS program, administrators like Clark are emphasizing a three-pronged strategic direction that focuses on leadership, collaboration and impact. “We obviously want effective leaders and we’re working to enable the capacity of the programs to create leaders who are as effective as possible. Secretary [Robert] McDonald recognizes the importance of community leaders and we’re looking to develop ways for us to find potential partners and for potential partners to find us,” describes Clark. “We’re also focused on working within local communities and in collaborative ways with various organizations to generate those positive outcomes I mentioned previously. It’s not just about working as a team, but making sure the need of both the veterans and volunteers are heard. We want there to be a push-pull effect in these relationships, where the community pulls information from us and also pushes us to be the best possible program.
“It’s all about impact,” she summarizes. “We sincerely believe that everyone is capable of making an impact. Anyone who has served or wants to serve can make a difference. We’re working very intentionally to address problems that arise with volunteers and partners, so that at the end of the day we can find ways for our volunteers and the VAVS program to make a difference and talk about the impact of our efforts. We want to put a smile on veterans’ faces, but we also want to have statistics and measurable outcomes. It’s not just nice; it’s necessary.”
“What will you do?”
In a VAVS public service announcement, award-winning actor Gary Sinese encourages citizens to play a role in honoring and supporting our veterans. Best known for his roles as Lt. Dan from the movie “Forrest Gump” and Detective Mac Taylor on CBS-TV’s “CSI: New York,” the actor works tirelessly on behalf of our active duty military and veterans, not only as a spokesman for the VAVS program, but also touring with the United Service Organizations (USO) and entertaining troops with his Lt. Dan Band.
In the short public service video, Sinese reminds viewers that “our veterans put everything on the line to protect our freedom. We may never be able to repay them for their sacrifice, but we can show them just how much we appreciate all that they’ve done. Everyone can do something to let Veterans know how much we appreciate their service.”
At the end, he asks the ultimate question: “What will you do?”
VAVS National Committee
The VAVS program is supported by the VAVS National Advisory Committee, which is comprised of representatives of 54 major veteran, civic and service organizations, including FRA. As an associate member of the committee, FRA is a liaison between our membership and the volunteer community that serves the VA.
“FRA involvement in the VAVS program is another avenue for veterans to help veterans,” says Chris Slawinski, FRA’s national veterans’ service director and FRA’s representative on the National VAVS Advisory Committee. “Among the 116 shipmates who volunteer at VA facilities, 29 are designated VAVS representatives and deputy representatives at 22 facilities. These ‘reps and deps’ attend quarterly meetings at their local VA facilities to set goals for the coming months and plan activities to meet those goals. By helping our fellow veterans, we also help the VA serve its patients.”
FRA Shipmates Make a Difference
Shipmate Past National President (PNP) Joe Maez and his wife, Alice, are regular volunteers at the Reno (Nevada) VA Medical Center, where they attend the Veterans’ Coffee Cart, serving veterans who stop by for a free cup of java.
“The Coffee Cart is very popular and we have a lot of takers,” says Maez, “even some homeless vets stop by for a free cup. We serve about 30 cups during our 7:30 to 10:00 a.m. shift.”
The Maezs enjoy the opportunity to give back and are always happy to lend an ear to the veterans they serve.
“Vets like to talk and the coffee helps them open up. Vets have their own language and that common language is definitely a benefit of vets serving vets. The cart is positioned near the mental health clinic and many of those patients, in particular, really benefit from communicating with others who share the common bond of military service. They introduce themselves and you can see them get excited as they begin to share their stories. They like to talk and, more importantly, they like to be heard. It’s very rewarding.”
Maez is also a VAVS representative at the Reno Medical Center. He attends the quarterly meetings, where the committee helps set goals and plan activities. Other FRA shipmates also volunteer at the Reno facility and all have undergone the necessary screening and training to be VAVS volunteers.
“Privacy is very important. All volunteers have to attend a class about the importance of respecting patients’ privacy regarding medical matters and compliance with HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] regulations. They have to take a TB test and some other basic medical screenings before they can interact with patients,” explains Maez.
The screenings may also help determine what type of assignment is best suited to each volunteer. “I wanted to be a driver, but I didn’t qualify for that type of volunteer service. The VAVS staff worked with me to match my skills with their needs. They’re also good about moving people around to different volunteer tasks so they can get a feel for how they’d like to contribute.”
Maez encourages all FRA shipmates and Auxiliary members to consider VAVS as an outlet for their free time. “If you want to help veterans, this is a great way to go.”
Lauren Armstrong is the Contributing Editor and Member of the FRA Auxiliary. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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CWO4 Roger E. Mitchell,
U.S. Navy, Retired
July 4, 1942 – April 7, 2015
FRA National Vice President, 2014–2015
FRA National Vice President (NVP) Roger E. Mitchell joined the staff of the Supreme Commander on April 7, 2015. A continuous member of FRA since 1985 and a Life Member for more than 20 years, Mitchell spent 30 years in service to the Association at the local, regional and national levels.
During his long tenure as an FRA shipmate, Mitchell served as president of Branch 188 (Tampa, Florida) and Branch 278 (Huntsville, Alabama), chaired the Southeast Region’s Legislative and Youth Activities Committees and served as a member of the region’s Financial, Membership and Public Relations Committees. He was a member of the National Future Planning Committee at the time of his demise. As a shipmate concerned about promoting the FRA, he helped organize and attended more than 50 public relations and recruiting events in the Southeast Region to raise awareness and recruit new members into the Association. In recognition of his outstanding dedication, his shipmates elected him to serve as Southeast Regional President in 2007–2008. On the national level, Mitchell chaired the National Youth Activities and Public Relations Committees, served as chairman for the 2010 National Convention in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and played a lead role in the 2012 National Convention in Reno, Nevada. At the FRA National Convention in October 2014, Mitchell was elected National Vice President of FRA.
Mitchell joined the U.S. Navy Reserve while a junior in high school in 1959, reported to active duty in February 1961, and retired in September 1981 as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 (Gunner). His military career included participation in the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade, service in Vietnam and involvement in several NASA recovery missions. He served on four surface ships with almost 15 years of sea duty. Retirement from the U.S. Navy led on to a position with Sperry Corporation (which later became Lockheed Martin Corporation) as an engineer and program manager. During his free time, Shipmate Roger was an avid gun collector and enthusiast, and devoted many hours to other veterans’ organization in his community.
Shipmate Roger was dedicated to improving the FRA and moving the Association into the future. He was actively engaged in his leadership role as National Vice President, and his presence and counsel will be sorely missed by his shipmates and friends.
Shipmate Mitchell is survived by his loving wife of 50 years, Anne Harrison Mitchell; three sons: Thomas Mitchell (and wife, Kimberly), Roger Mitchell (and wife, Shannon), William Mitchell (and wife, Katrena); one sister, Anita Grace Bills of Erie, PA; five granddaughters: Carson Leigh, Olivia, Abigail, Naomi and Kellan. He is predeceased by his brother, Dwight Lee.
FRA offers its sincere sympathies to Shipmate National Vice President Mitchell’s family and friends.
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