Meet Brianna, ENVSC Scholar Fellow

Hi! My name is Brianna Bueltmann, and I am the new Elks Scholar Fellow for the Elks National Veterans Service Commission. I graduated from Harvard University in 2016 with a degree in Sociology and came to the Elks after two years of post-graduate travel and research. Immediately after college, I had a travel fellowship that allowed me to live in Ecuador, Colombia, Germany, and Italy for one year. More recently, I worked with the Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, doing sociology research on housing, landlords, families, and neighborhood change.

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I was drawn to this fellowship because I am passionate about ending homelessness. Rural poverty has long been close to my heart, and volunteering in homeless shelters while studying sociology further opened my eyes to urban poverty and housing issues. Everyone deserves a home. Having worked as a case manager and directed a transitional housing program, I saw how many barriers to housing and gaps in service there were for people experiencing homelessness. The Elks have taken an innovative and entrepreneurial approach, stepping in to provide vital resources that don’t exist elsewhere and make a real difference in the lives of veterans and their families.

Most people think that homelessness could never happen to them, but the reality is that more than half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and would be unable to handle a financial emergency if it happened to them. There are over 500,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States, and it’s estimated that as many as 39,000 of them are veterans. On top of the widespread issue of finding affordable housing, veterans are especially vulnerable to experiencing homelessness because of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and difficulty translating military skills into private sector careers.

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In the National Veterans Service Scholar Fellow position, I help run the Welcome Home programs working to serve veterans in need. Our Emergency Assistance Fund helps keep veterans at risk of homelessness stably housed by providing a one-time grant for emergency assistance to get caught up on rent, provide security deposits for new apartments, keep gas and electricity turned on, and help veterans sustain meaningful employment.

Welcome Home

Our Welcome Home Kit program helps veterans exiting homelessness and moving into permanent housing by connecting them with Elks members in their community to help provide furniture and basic household items like bedding, dishes, pots and pans, toiletries, and small kitchen appliances – the necessities anyone would need to get started in a new home.

As a part of the fellowship, I also get to work outside the office two days a week, volunteering at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center food pantry. We serve over 150 veterans in need every Tuesday by providing an array of robust groceries with many options for them to choose. I will also start volunteering Thursdays at a local Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRC), working closely with homeless veterans and their social workers.

I really appreciate how this fellowship gives me the opportunity to work directly with the veteran population we serve. Direct service helps keeps us grounded in our mission, and working more closely with social workers and veterans can help us learn more about how we can better meet their needs.

I am looking forward to my next two years with the Elks, excited to see the Welcome Home program develop even further and ready to work together to serve our veterans!

You can learn more about veteran homelessness and the statistics mentioned here:
National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
National Alliance to End Homelessness

A Fellow Farewell

by Sancy Childers, Elks National Veterans Service Commission Scholar Fellow 2016-2018

Reflecting on my two-year fellowship at the Elks National Veterans Service Commission, I am filled with gratitude. I am thankful for this incredible opportunity, the support of my coworkers, and the ways in which this work allowed me to grow. I am humbled and proud of the work the ENVSC does on a daily basis and I truly do not think I would be where I am today without this opportunity.

Starting in July, I will bIMG_2114e attending the University of California Davis School of Medicine. My experiences in this fellowship have helped shape my outlook on my future responsibilities as a physician.

My fellowship position focused on the Elks Welcome Home initiative aimed at helping end veteran homelessness in partnership with the Department of Veteran Affairs. When I began, the program was newly established enabling me to play a pivotal role in shaping an agenda that will have an impact on the lives of homeless and at-risk veterans for years to come.

This position gave me the opportunity to focus on my interest in healthcare for underserved communities and gain a unique perspective on this complex issue. As a physician I plan on serving vulnerable populations and the chance to work directly with these individuals has helped prepare me for medical school and my future responsibilities working in this field.

Throughout my fellowship position, my time was split between the Elks headquarters and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. While in the office, I coordinated a nationwide emergency assistance fund to help veterans and their families secure housing, remain housed, and pay essential utility bills. I also helped facilitate grants funding Elks member’s projects benefiting at risk veterans via Welcome Home Kits and Focus Grants.

“This experience was more challenging and worthwhile than anything I’ve done to date.”

When at the VA, I helped at a weekly pop-up food pantry, worked alongside the social workers serving the homeless, and volunteered in the Emergency Room. This experience was more challenging and worthwhile than anything I’ve done to date. I worked directly with this underserved population and I had the ability to really change their lives.

When I began this work, I was unprepared for the heart wrenching stories I would be hearing and the overwhelming feeling of knowing you made a meaningful impact on someone’s life. Early into my fellowship, a father of three young boys called to thank the Elks for helping him with a security deposit and cried while explaining that he had never given his three sons a proper bath.

This experience really stuck with me and put into perspective the work the ENVSC does. I was continuously humbled with the opportunity I had to serve these amazing men and women, and I am so thankful to have been a part of the team that is helping our nations hero’s get their lives back on track.

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A Centennial Celebration

Recognizing the 100th birthday of a dedicated Elks volunteer

Charles C. Covucci, a long time ENVSC volunteer and convention exhibit coordinator, has set up our booth at the Elks National Convention with a passion that is unmatched.
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He painstakingly unpacked uniforms, pictures and other kinds of memorabilia and displayed them all with care. Every item had a story, and Charlie knew them all.

His infectious laugh, mischievous ways and love of pranks made Charlie a star. Our members loved stopping by the booth to listen to Charlie’s stories, his unique perspectives on life, and above all, his great respect for all who served. Despite Charlie’s gregarious nature, he was always quick to point out who the real heroes are—our nation’s veterans.

In July 2006, Charlie was presented with a Special Citation by C. Valentine Bates, PGER at the National Convention in Orlando, Florida, for his 20 plus years of working the ENVSC booth.

In 2007, during the National Convention in Charlottesville, NC, at the young age of 89, Charlie retired and sold his personal collection to Tom Jamison, Playing Cards for Veterans Chair, for $1.00. To this day, Charlie’s items are respectfully displayed and admired by a new generation of Elks members at the ENVSC convention booth year after year.
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Charlie is celebrating his 100th birthday in March of this year and is still making people laugh. He and his wife, Dottie live in a retirement community in Florida, where he presides over the pool as Lifeguard, Counselor and Ladies Man.

The ENVSC thanks Charlie for his many years of service, his deep admiration for our Veterans. We wish him and his family all the best, and we appreciate all the volunteers who give their time and energy to serve veterans like he does.

Happy 100th Charlie!

Its Own Reward

My name is Silvia Holman and I have been working for the Elks National Veterans Service Commission for almost 20 years.

This November, the ENVSC once again organized Elks HQ employees here at the Memorial Building to volunteer at the Chicago Standdown at the Illinois National Guard Northwest Armory. I volunteered for this event before, and I was thrilled to do so again.

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A quick photo in front of the Charity statue at the Memorial Building and then off to the Standdown!

The Chicago Standdown helps homeless veterans stock up on winter clothing and other supplies to help them get through the cold Chicago winters. Veterans in attendance also received a hot lunch, housing assistance, time to schedule appointments with VA staff, and more.

We’re always working to improve the services available, so this year there were barbers on site, and veterans could take home fresh produce. Elks made sure that each veteran who attended received a winter hat and warm fleece gloves. Elks Scholars also attended and handed out thank you cards made by local students.

Outside of the physical supplies available, veterans also had the chance to relax for the day and enjoy camaraderie with their fellow veterans in the big, warm Armory.

Every year, this is a very rewarding experience for me. At the event, I usually help veterans with their plates at the serving line. Often, they are carrying large plastic bags with donated items. Many are elderly or have disabilities and it is difficult to balance a plate and utensils.

I ask them what they want from the servers and carry their food and a beverage into the dining area where there are large sheet cakes waiting for dessert. I like to set their places as if they are in a restaurant, and I make sure they have everything they want. The smiles on their faces, their feelings of being safe and warm, if only for a little while, is humbling to all involved.

 I feel as if I know many of these veterans. I hear and understand them because my husband is a Viet Nam Veteran. For me, volunteering at this event and serving these veterans is an honor, and immensely rewarding.

The next time you hear of a Veterans Standdown in your community, please volunteer to help out. You won’t regret it.

To find a Standdown near you, visit the National Coalition of Homeless Veteran’s website: http://nchv.org/index.php/service/service/stand_down/.

If you don’t have a Standdown nearby, this site gives you some practical ways to start one! It doesn’t have to be big. If it helps one veteran, it’s worth it.

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Elks HQ staff and Elks Scholars in action at the Armory.

September is Suicide Prevention Month

Want to support a Veteran who is going through a tough time?

Be There. Even simple actions can make a big difference.

We all can take action to help prevent suicide, but many people don’t know what they can do to support a Veteran in their life who’s going through a difficult time. During Suicide Prevention Month and year-round, help the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) let people know that preventing suicide starts with this simple act of support: Be There.

You don’t need to make a grand gesture: A simple act of kindness shows you care. You can call up an old friend, check in on a neighbor, cook someone dinner, or invite a colleague on a walk. You can also encourage Veterans to take time for themselves and to focus on their own health and wellness.

If you are worried about a Veteran who may be at risk for suicide, here’s what you can do to help connect them with treatment and support:

  • If you are concerned that a Veteran is in crisis or at immediate risk for suicide, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. Caring, qualified VA responders can help you determine ways to keep someone safe and connect the Veteran you care about with support.
  • If you notice that a Veteran is going through a difficult time and aren’t sure how to start a conversation or how to connect them with support, contact VA’s Coaching into Care program. Call 1-888-823-7458 to connect with a licensed clinical social worker or psychologist who can help you figure out how to help motivate someone to get support.
  • Talk with the Veteran’s friends. Peer support, especially from others who have military experience, can be crucial in helping someone open up.
  • Encourage everyone, especially those going through a difficult time, to safely store their firearms. Watch VA’s gun safety video to learn more: VeteransCrisisLine.net/GunSafetyVideo

Letting a Veteran friend or loved one know you’re concerned about them may seem daunting, but know you can make a difference by starting a conversation. The most important thing is to show genuine, heartfelt support for someone going through a tough time and being there to help.

Prepare for the conversation.

When talking with someone about your concerns, try to keep these best practices in mind:

  • Remain calm.
  • Listen more than you speak.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Act with confidence.
  • Don’t argue.
  • Use open body language.
  • Limit questions to casual information gathering.
  • Use supportive and encouraging comments.
  • Be as honest and upfront as possible.

Before you start a conversation, learn about suicide prevention and mental health resources that are available near you, so you can help connect a friend or loved one with treatment and support. Find contact information for your local VA medical center, Suicide Prevention Coordinator, and other resources such as counselors and treatment centers at VeteransCrisisLine.net/ResourceLocator.

Know when a crisis requires immediate action.  

Everyone should be aware of signs of crisis that require immediate attention from a medical or mental health professional:

  • Thinking about hurting or killing oneself
  • Looking for ways to kill oneself
  • Talking about death, dying, or suicide
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse or the dangerous use of weapons

If you notice these signs in yourself or a Veteran you care about, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or text to 838255 to get confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Wether you are concerned about a Veteran you know, or you want to make a difference to those in your community, spread the word that resources are available to help: Visit VeteransCrisisLine.net/BeThere to learn how you and others your community can Be There to prevent suicide, and download materials you can share at VeteransCrisisLine.net/SpreadTheWord.

 

*Article provided to the Elks for use by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, as part of their Suicide Prevention Month 2017 Partner Outreach. 

Finding Local Veterans in Need: Where to Start

“Our Lodge wants to help, but we can’t find any veterans in need.” Sound familiar? Our office fields this question from time to time, particularly in areas without a VA facility nearby. Here’s how to get started.

First, the VA operates thousands of facilities, and not all are hospitals. They run housing facilities for formerly homeless veterans, offsite clinics, benefits offices, and Vets Centers. Many of these facilities, especially Vets Centers, are located away from traditional VA campuses. Contact the staff at these facilities, and ask how the Elks can help.

Additionally, the VA has dozens of outreach programs in each facility, from adaptive sports programs to skills-based classes to financial counseling and more. Keep an open mind, and research where the needs are, even if it means leaving your comfort zone and changing what your Lodge has done in the past.

Then, search online for veterans organizations in your area. There are more than 45,000 veterans nonprofits registered in the United States. There may be some just around the corner that you don’t know about.

You can also search for city, county, regional or state veterans offices and let them know the Elks are there to serve veterans in need. Check for veterans meetings and gatherings on community calendars, and ask if you can stop by to say a few words about the Elks support for veterans.

Many large nonprofits, like the Salvation Army, Volunteers of America and even the YMCA have programs specifically for veterans, military members and their families. Reach out to these groups and see how your Lodge can work together with them.

Don’t forget about more traditional outreach organizations, like Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and AMVETS, to name just a few.

Be aware that younger veterans are less likely to be a part of traditional veterans groups, and may be harder to connect with. Groups like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon rally younger veterans to meet in their communities for service activities and social gatherings. Check their websites to find the local contact in your area.  You  may also want to reach out to student veterans near you. If there is a community college or university near you, they may have a student veterans group or staff member responsible for veterans outreach.

Finally, work with what you have. Because of privacy laws, many organizations may not be able to share names. They can, however, share needs or ideas. And once your Lodge has built up some trust, they may be more willing to connect you with veterans directly.

 

 

More than Support

In the non-profit world, the word support is often used and rarely defined. It’s a catch-all verb, and its casual use sometimes denotes a lack of action. People are content to share things on social media, slap a bumper sticker on their car or proudly declare their support, all without ever actually doing anything to advance that cause or solve that problem. The world of veterans’ service is no exception in this regard.

However, the Elks are part of an important program that counteracts this trend. Through the Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service program, or VAVS, hundreds of Elks are stationed in VA facilities across the nation, providing consistent, tangible service to the veterans who seek care there.

That’s no small feat. In the United States today, there are more than 21 million veterans, more than 9 million of whom receive health care at the VA. In a typical year, more than 6 million of those veterans visit a facility.

Nearly 60 years ago, the VA chose the words of Abraham Lincoln as their motto and mission, taken from a speech he’d given just weeks before his assassination. Lincoln charged the country with the responsibility “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

That responsibility stands today. All kinds of veterans pass through the VA: young and old, male and female, rich and poor. They go seeking traditional healthcare, mental health treatment, physical therapy, assistance finding a home or even to learn an adaptive sport.

Through the VAVS program, Elks are stationed in places like VA Medical Centers, State Veterans Homes and even a few USOs across the country. These Elks host barbecues, organize job fairs, partner on Stand Downs, provide weekly recreation opportunities, offer much-needed trips out of the hospital, and provide friendship.

If you’re passionate about serving veterans, the VA is the perfect place to do so. We are always looking for VAVS Representatives to promise monthly visits, and Deputy Representatives to partner with them.  More volunteers means the opportunity to expand services and reach out to new groups of veterans, helping us to serve groups like female veterans, homeless veterans, and the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans whose numbers are increasing every day.

Your time and talents are needed. Millions of veterans are counting on you.

 

To learn more about the Elks VAVS program, visit our webpage. To get involved, contact the Veterans office today to learn about VAVS volunteer opportunities near you. You can reach us at 773-755-4736, or Vets@elks.org.

 

A Model Food Pantry

Every Tuesday an expansive hallway on the second floor of the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago gets transformed into a food pantry like you’ve never seen before. One wall is lined with tables overflowing with a variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, canned goods, eggs, and meat. When was the last time you saw a food pantry with three meat options?! It’s common practice for food pantries to provide preassembled packages of food for their recipients. Due to the immense number of volunteers at Jesse Brown however, there is a sufficient crew to run the pantry similar to a grocery store. As they walk down the hallway, the veterans get to choose what they want, minimizing waste of unwanted goods as well as bringing dignity into the process. The food is provided in collaboration by the Food Depository, AmeriCorps, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Any veteran, whether homeless or housed, can shop at the pantry once a month. The goal of the pantry is to serve 150 veterans a week but this number is often exceeded. This model has successfully been replicated at Edward Hines VA Hospital, also serving the Chicago area, and VA’s across the nation are looking to duplicate this system in the near future.

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The expansive hallway at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center converted into the weekly food pantry. Volunteers travel down the right side of the railing, collecting the food the veterans select.

I am an Elks scholar, having received scholarships from the Elks National Foundation in 2012 when I began college at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I’ve been working at the Elks National Veterans Service Commission as a fellow for the past few months on the Welcome Home initiative, aimed at helping end veteran homelessness. Jenna, the other Elks scholar turned fellow, and I have been having a blast at Jesse Brown these past few weeks. Many of the volunteers we work with are veterans themselves, choosing to serve other veterans in need. Others come from the American Red Cross, AmeriCorps, or simply choose to volunteer on their own. There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie and jokes are cracked nonstop. The day flies by as we act as personal shoppers for veterans, snatching their food off the tables and thanking them for their service. This Veterans Day, November 11th, will mark the 3rd anniversary since the food pantry at Jesse Brown VA has been open. In this time, nearly 5,000 unique veterans have been served, along with nearly 13,000 unique household members.

Call Volunteer Services at your local VA to see how you can get involved and give back to veterans in your community! This has been an extremely fun and rewarding experience and I would highly recommend volunteering at your VA!

Mental Health Matters

On July 7, the Department of Veterans Affairs released the results of a large-scale study of veteran suicide rates. The analysis, which examined the records of more than 55 million veterans from 1979 to 2014, is the most comprehensive to date. The results showed that in 2014, an average of 20 veterans a day died from suicide*, making the risk of suicide 21% greater for veterans than the general population.

The statistics themselves are at times surprising and always alarming. For example, 65% of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older. Specific numbers aside, it’s clear that veterans are more susceptible to suicide than civilians. These results are unacceptable, and should be a concern for all Americans. Even before this report came out, I spoke with several members about the issue and how the Elks can do more to help.

Some Good News

There is news of some progress though. The use of VA services is protective against suicide, and the VA is expanding access to and the amount of those services available. They are increasing access to same-day appointments for veterans with urgent mental health needs. They’ve hired 60 new crisis intervention responders to work the Veterans Crisis Line, and they’re increasing online and over the phone mental health care opportunities to reach veterans in underserved areas. They’re being proactive and reaching out to veterans with the greatest risk.

Some of this is because of a sustained advocacy campaign by the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act.

How Can the Elks Help?

Though the Welcome Home program doesn’t mention it directly, it does play a role in assisting veterans in need of mental health services. Every veteran who receives emergency assistance from the Elks is also working closely with a VA social worker and enrolled in a comprehensive treatment plan that includes access to extensive mental health care. (View these videos to hear the experiences of veterans in this treatment program.)

Many of our VAVS Representatives hold events for veterans receiving treatment for mental health issues, and a few Lodges specifically address this issue by using their Lodge Grants to hold veterans support groups. Our Adopt-a-Veteran program is targeted at reaching out to veterans who lack support. Studies show that increased social ties decrease the risk of suicide.

The ENVSC also works closely with the group Make the Connection help them publicize their many resources, promote the Veterans Crisis Line, and reach out to veterans. Make the Connection staff is always at our conventions to share information, and we spread the word about their events and programs in our newsletters and on social media.

We also publicize the work of other programs that are helping. The relatively new organization Campaign to Change Direction is working to reduce the stigma of mental health, and encourage everyone to focus on the importance of emotional well-being in addition to physical well-being. The organization Give an Hour provides free mental health services to veterans and military members and their families. They are always looking for licensed mental health professionals to volunteer their time.

To ensure that we are doing our part, the ENVSC will increase its promotion of resources like these. You can do your part by sharing that information too, and by continuing to serve veterans in your community, and inviting them into the Elks family.

Together, we can and should do more to help keep our veterans safe once they return home.

*Many media outlets and organizations cite an estimate of 22 a day, which is linked to the results of an older study, which actually produced the range of 18 to 22 veterans a day. The Washington Post has a good in-depth analysis of this 22 a day number and where it comes from.

Meet Sancy, the Elks Scholar Fellow

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Sancy Childers and I just began working as an Elks Scholar Fellow at the Elks National Veteran Services Commission in Chicago. This past June I graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a B.S. in Biological Sciences. Back in 2012 when I began college, I received a Legacy Scholarship as well as a Lodge Scholarship from the San Rafael, Calif., Lodge No. 1108 where my family has been members for years. Thank you for the generous support, the knowledge that this organization believed in me enough to invest in my future gave me the confidence to pursue my goals. Your support was invaluable and I’ve now come full circle and returned to give back to the Elks!

I’ve been working here a few weeks and things in Chicago are in full swing! I was fortunate enough to attend the Elks National Convention in Houston over the 4th of July weekend. I had no idea what to expect from this event and was blown away by all the amazing work the members of the Elks are doing. From serving veterans to volunteering with programs to assist children with disabilities, Elks members are making a visible and meaningful impact in their communities across the country.

In Houston there was a lot of chatter about the Welcome Home program aimed at ending veteran homelessness. This will be my primary focus and I’m so excited to get started! There are 5 components to the program; Welcome Home Kits to help veterans establish their homes once they become housed, Adopt a Homeless Veteran where Elks members act as an advocate and friend to help a veteran transition into their home, Awareness Campaign where we help Elks spread the word about the issue, Elks Housing Navigators where Elks members work with homeless veterans to find a home and become integrated into the community, and finally the Elks Emergency Assistance Program. In this final component veterans can apply for a one-time monetary assistance to prevent homelessness. Requests include helping with utility payments to ensure that housed veterans don’t lose their electricity or gas, helping pay for a security deposit to aid homeless veterans in becoming house, as well as rental assistance to ensure housed veterans don’t fall into homelessness.

I’ve processed hundreds of these Emergency Assistance applications in the past few weeks and wanted to share one of these veteran’s story. A young veteran in the Chicago area was injured and required a common surgical procedure. His job required him to do manual labor and he was quickly terminated because this simple operation prevented him from working for a few weeks. Before he knew it, this father of two daughters who had been housed with a stable job, was on the brink of becoming homeless. By helping this family pay their rent, they have been able to remain housed while the father seeks alternative employment now that he is in good health again. It warms my heart to be able to help families like this and be able to see what a direct and tremendous impact the Elks National Veterans Service Commission is having!

If you wish to get involved you can read more about the Welcome Home program on our website or view the presentation given at the Elks National Convention last week by clicking on the presentation titled “Ending Veteran Homelessness: How the Elks can Help”.  Check back in for more stories like this and updates on what’s going on here in Chicago!