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David Edwards recalls how volunteering with veterans changed his late father’s life at a challenging time.
His dad — James Edwards, who died in 2009 — seemed happy enough during the first year following his retirement, the son recalls. His father played golf in the summer and did woodworking in the winter. But soon, it became clear that something was missing from his dad’s life. So Edwards, who is chief of public and community relations for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Maryland Health Care System, suggested that his father — a World War II Navy vet who helped land troops on D-Day — consider volunteering at the same VA medical facility in Maryland where he had once been a patient. His father was apprehensive about returning to a place that held painful memories for him, but Edwards urged him to give it a try.
“I told him, ‘You benefited, why not be on the other side helping?’ ’’ Edwards says. “Once he got in there, he loved it. He flourished. It changed his whole demeanor. It uplifted him.’’
His dad, who was in his early 60s when he started volunteering, enjoyed spending time with older veterans at the Perry Point VA Medical Center so much that going there became part of his routine, and he did it for more than a decade, Edwards says.
Such powerful emotional connections are common among people who volunteer to work with veterans. Volunteers and the organizations that recruit them say there is something particularly moving about helping in tangible ways, however small, to make life easier for people who have sacrificed so much serving their nation. Because struggling veterans across the country have so many different types of needs, there are numerous opportunities for Americans in virtually every community to give back, experts say.
In VA facilities across the country, “every day is Veterans Day,” Edwards says.
VA Health Care Facilities
The first place most people turn when they decide to volunteer with veterans is the VA Voluntary Service (VAVS), which connects volunteers with opportunities at VA health facilities across the country. In the past year, more than 63,000 people worked in specific roles as VA volunteers at hospitals, community-based clinics, nursing homes and hospices. VA volunteers also work at cemeteries and help by telecommuting for assignments such as assisting with graphics and writing for VA publications, says Sabrina Clark, director of VAVS.
One of the VA’s priorities is to match volunteers with meaningful opportunities that suit both the skills they have to offer and the needs of the veterans they hope to serve.
“The most important thing to VA is that volunteers put their interests, skills, time and talents to use in ways that benefit veterans,’’ says Clark.
The work that volunteers do at and through VA facilities can range widely, from answering phones and working on hospital computers to more unusual assignments such as playing guitar and teaching rock climbing. One of the most pressing needs VA facilities have is for drivers to take veterans to and from medical appointments. Other common roles are working at the information desk, scheduling appointments for veterans, escorting patients to blood tests or other appointments, visiting patients in hospice care, and greeting new patients and showing them around the facility.
Even activities that might sound routine like delivering care packages or holiday cards to veterans at a VA hospital can be moving, says Wendy Griffin, who volunteers one day a week at the Salt Lake City VA Medical Center. In addition to recruiting and assigning volunteers and working on the facility’s database, Griffin — who suffered a spinal injury in an accident while serving with the Air Force in Honduras — also helps out delivering packages and cards. The care packages include items such as snacks, calendars and handmade crocheted or quilted blankets.
“I handed one to a veteran and said, ‘Happy holidays, these are a gift for you,’ and he cried. He didn’t have any family there,’’ she said. “It makes you feel really good inside to know that you’ve touched another life.’’
Griffin says one of the most valuable things volunteers offer to some veterans is human contact.
“Sometimes it’s nice just to say hello to them because that’s what they’re searching for. You are the only person that’s come in to say ‘Hi’ to them,’’ she says.
In fact, some volunteers even offer to fill that need for a connection during the most pivotal moments. The program No Veteran Dies Alone, for example, sends volunteers to be with patients in their final days if they don’t have friends or relatives who can be present.
Among the other more specialized programs that welcome volunteers at VA facilities are recreation therapy programs. At the Salt Lake City VA Medical Center, Griffin says, volunteers have been involved in recreation therapy programs where they take vets rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing and biking. Such programs can be particularly helpful to wounded vets, including amputees, she said. For example, amputees who don’t have legs can hand-cycle with their arms.
In one case, she said, volunteers helped teach a Vietnam-era vet who couldn’t use one arm and one leg how to do archery using his teeth.
Other volunteers with expertise in diving, she says, have taken younger vets on trips to the beach in California or a lake in Utah to teach them how to dive.
“A lot of people with PTSD find it [diving] relaxing,’’ she says. “What I like about the VA Voluntary Service is that it takes whatever your abilities are and helps you use your abilities to help other people’s abilities.’’
The same philosophy applies at the Maryland VA, Edwards says. If a volunteer mentions that she plays guitar, she’ll probably be directed to work with a music therapy group, he says. Or an artist can do art therapy for inpatients or outpatients.
Volunteers also can provide relief for caregivers. “Since we serve an aging population, we serve vets receiving care through home-based primary care programs. We recruit volunteers to give caregivers a break — for lunch, shopping, a movie.” This can be very rewarding, he says, for both the veteran and the volunteer.
Most volunteering roles require no special expertise. Charles Althoff, 77, drives more than 20 miles every Tuesday to the Baltimore VA Medical Center, where he spends five or six hours transporting patients within the hospital via wheelchair or stretcher between their rooms and wherever they need to go for radiology exams, physical therapy or other appointments.
Althoff says patients often ask where he is taking them, and if they seem nervous he tries to calm them. The best part, he says, is the camaraderie and friendship he experiences working with veterans and other volunteers.
“It gives me a feeling of being needed,’’ he says. “I get thank-yous from patients, staff and doctors. That’s all I need.’’
If you are interested in volunteering with the VAVS, you can contact them online at www.volunteer.va.gov. Click on “Volunteer or Donate Now” in the drop-down menu, and that will take you to a state and facility where you can volunteer. You provide contact information, indicate any specific interests and your availability, and someone from the facility gets in touch with you.
Another way to find volunteer opportunities is to call the local VA Medical Center and ask for the voluntary service office. If you don’t know where your local facility is, you can call 202-461-7300 and the VA will assist you.
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You can also find volunteer opportunities by contacting nonprofit groups that help veterans. About half of the volunteers who work at VA facilities are directed there by veterans service organizations and other community and faith-based groups that collaborate with the VAVS, the VA says. In addition to helping at VA facilities, these organizations often organize their own activities and events to help veterans, and they welcome volunteers.
The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization, for example, launched an online tool in February 2018 that allows volunteers to enter their zip code and see what sort of tasks nearby vets need help with, such as mowing grass, grocery shopping, cleaning gutters and even changing light bulbs.
“It just requires someone with a healthy back and a willingness to give,’’ says John Kleindienst, national voluntary services director at DAV.
The DAV also operates a transportation network that connects volunteer drivers with veterans who need transportation to and from medical appointments. The organization provides 615,000 rides a year, says Kleindienst, but that is a significant drop from the past because they don’t have enough drivers. “A lot of vets don’t get access to care because they can’t get a ride,’’ he says.
Driving vets can make a big difference for volunteers as well as for vets, he says, especially when a volunteer regularly takes the same patient back and forth.
“It establishes a wonderful friendship — an ongoing and lasting relationship,’’ he says.
The American Legion, which has nearly 13,000 posts across the country, is another organization that welcomes help from volunteers for numerous activities on behalf of service members and veterans. Its Family Support Network helps families with tasks such as grocery shopping, lawn mowing and home repairs when service members are away or in need. To take part, contact your local American Legion post or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Raughter, deputy director of media relations for the American Legion, says another way that volunteers can help is by welcoming home troops when they return from deployments. Those events happen at airports, National Guard armories, American Legion posts, parks and schools, he says.
Sunny Farrand, a 74-year-old volunteer in San Diego, has worked with the American Legion for more than a dozen years. He has been involved in many different activities to help vets, from setting up barbecues for wounded warriors at Balboa Naval Hospital to raising money for all-terrain wheelchairs for vets.
Farrand, who was homeless for about six months in the mid-1990s, says he finds particular satisfaction helping come up with solutions to problems for veterans who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
In one case, he says, he helped arrange assistance for a vet wounded by an explosive device in Iraq who returned home after spending 18 months being treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Md., only to discover that his basement was flooded and the damage was so severe that the house was at risk of being condemned.
Farrand was able to get a donation of about $8,000 from the Semper Fi Fund to pay to pump out the veteran’s basement and install new drains. The vet, who was confined to a wheelchair, had suffered a traumatic brain injury and lost his left leg and part of his right hand. When the people fixing his basement noticed he had a Purple Heart on his license plate, they also decided to help out by redoing the vet’s landscaping, Farrand says.
Being able to find help to solve such problems feels great, he says.
“It’s about being able to give them a life after they fought for our country and go through hell,’’ he says. “When you make a young man cry because you helped him and his family and [you] get that hug, that’s better than any award.’’
Another national veterans service organization deeply engaged with volunteers is the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Through the VFW, more than 6,000 individuals volunteer on a regular basis at over 150 VA health care facilities.
One way to connect with other organizations such as these that serve veterans is to contact them directly. A list of more of these groups can be found on the website of the VAVS National Advisory Committee.
You can also find opportunities to help veterans through Create the Good, AARP’s network for connecting people with volunteer opportunities.