For this weeks Friday Field Notes we will hear from two women who work with the Reaching Rural Veterans program with the Military Families Research Institute at Purdue University about a collaboration between land grant universities, rural faith communities, and faith-based food pantries to provide food, benefits, services, support and education to low income, homeless and at-risk veterans and their families living in rural areas.
One of the biggest challenges that the Veterans Administration (VA) faces when it comes to providing services to veterans is to reach them where they live. In 2013, the Veterans Health Administration announced a new strategic plan that focused on ensuring that veterans have convenient access to tailored information and services, regardless of their location or circumstances. This kind of strategy has been productively used for many health- and poverty-related initiatives.
Many organizations such as universities and the Department of Labor have created “one stop” offices to make it easier for veterans to meet requirements for education or employment (U.S. Department of Labor, 2011). Because rural veterans are a low-density population, any program aimed at serving them needed to leverage existing community resources in order to minimize expense, assist in sustaining and strengthening existing community programs, and infuse into local communities awareness of, and support for, veterans.
Mindful of these principles, the Military Family Research Institute (MFRI) partnered with the VA Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the VA Office of Rural Health and the Roudebush VA Medical Center to create Reaching Rural Veterans (RRV). The result: a collaboration between land grant universities, rural faith communities, and faith-based food pantries to provide food, benefits, services, support and education to low income, homeless and at-risk veterans and their families living in rural areas.
The pilot program launched after 10 faith-based pantries located in Indiana and Kentucky were selected through a competitive application process. Each pantry received a grant of approximately $5,000 as well as training, materials and resources to use to reach out to veterans in their service area. About once a month, each pantry held an outreach event, bringing together multiple resources for veterans, making it easy, efficient, and nonthreatening for them to obtain benefits and services while building support with other veterans and the community. Through RRV, veterans gained access to behavioral health professionals, county veteran service officers, personal care providers (e.g. haircuts), veteran service organizations and more. VA facilities participated; so did nutrition educators and SNAP-education paraprofessionals, who provided food samples and information on nutrition and healthy choices.
Our initial goal for RRV was to reach an average of 25 veterans per county or a total of 300 veterans. But we far exceeded that. In six months, RRV reached more than 1,100 veterans in two states. And while the pilot project has ended, each of the 10 participating pantries has shared that the RRV events have been so successful that they intend to continue veteran programming.
“My office has been able to help a veteran at least once per each of the last three [RRV] events,” said a VSO for Indiana’s Marion County. “I was able to change the life of two veterans by helping them get signed up for VA healthcare and I was able to help a veteran who was at risk for becoming homeless with a considerable increase in his pension. This veteran was a Korean War veteran and he is a Purple Heart recipient. He never received any services or benefits from the VA previously and has significant hearing loss. He now has access to VA benefits and we are helping him get a hearing aid to improve his quality of life.”
To learn more about RRV, visit the MFRI website at www.mfri.purdue.edu.
Meet the Authors:
Beth Johnson currently serves as the director of external relations for the Military Family Research Institute (MFRI) at Purdue University. There she oversees a variety of projects including public relations, community relations, strategic communication, events and government affairs. Prior to joining MFRI, Johnson held public relations and communications positions with the Marine Corps Marathon, George Mason University and Salsa Labs, Inc. She received her bachelor’s degree in communication from Auburn University and holds her master’s degree in communication from George Mason University. Johnson’s military connections include her husband (former Marine captain and OEF veteran), brother (former Army captain and OIF veteran) and father (former Coast Guard officer).
Andrea Wellnitz currently serves at the Project Manager for the Reaching Rural Veterans program with the Military Family Research Institute (MFRI) at Purdue University. Andrea has over eleven years of experience working with diverse audiences on a range of social service, community outreach and educational projects and programs. These audiences have ranged from at-risk youth in the United States, multi-generational populations around the world, and at-risk Veterans and their families. She received her master’s degree in Social Work from The Ohio State University.