By Matthew Feldhaus, IVMF Program Manager of Community Services
I can remember the hope and optimism I felt during my 8-hour TAPS course at the Defense Language Institute. I had just graduated from the Modern Standard Arabic course and I was excited about all of the opportunities that surely were awaiting me in ‘the real world’. Fast-forward three months and it was a different picture, a different me. I was frustrated, having gone on a couple interviews and being told I did not have the proper experience. I was getting desperate, I had student loans from college, among other everyday living expenses and bills and the unemployment checks were not cutting it. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn, so what did I do? I took a job at the local mall, working side by side with 18-year old high school kids, college students, and some other folks who were hit by the struggling job market.
On a Wednesday morning at the end of June representatives from eight different local non-profit organizations met in a conference room in Pittsburgh Mercy, home to the PAServes Greater Pittsburgh coordination center. The organizations represented entities from DoD, the philanthropic space, and various non-profits who all want to better serve veterans, service members, and their families within their greater Pittsburgh community. This may seem rather simple or unimportant, a meeting of organizations that serve a set community subgroup, such as veterans or the elderly, but in my years working in the veterans space this is FAR from common. For numerous reasons, the ‘veterans space’ has been a bit disconnected, each organization working independently with their own clients trying their absolute best to serve the diverse complex needs of the individual, often taking them far outside the scope of their organizations functions. The collaboration that takes place is often an illusion: working together for a co-hosted event, or having a crude referral system that involves a business card or a phone call to someone you know in another organization. Overall, there is no shortage of compassion and good intentions to serve veterans, service members, and their families … just the simple fact it’s not being done well. People slip through the cracks. With over 40,000 veteran service organizations across the U.S., it’s no surprise.
Therefore, what made this meeting special was the opportunity for these organizations to address common community problems they all face and work towards a shared solution. The Veterans Leadership Program was able to report their strong need for veteran mentors for their vet court mentorship program. Soldier On was able to clarify the program specifics of their Peer Mentoring program, a program that goes far beyond general case management from their social workers and allows a veteran themselves to serve as the mentor that can assist the veteran in various aspects of their life and even drive the veteran to important appointments. The Army Readiness Specialist from a local Army reserve unit was able to share an upcoming family day event that could be a valuable opportunity to share local resources to service members and their families. In the end, a group of eight distinct organizations were able to gather and share pertinent updates and events, discuss shared problems and come to unified solutions, and make personal connections to each other. So why did this take place? What makes Pittsburgh so special?
Pittsburgh is home to a unified group of providers under a shared technology platform to make and receive intelligent referrals, track their progress over time, and aggregate outcomes. PAServes Greater Pittsburgh is one of now eleven AmericaServes communities established across America whose #1 goal is to fundamentally transform (and improve) the delivery of services to veterans, service members, and their families. Thus, with a shared goal and standardization of referral making, organizations are able to gather under that shared umbrella of commonalities and discuss common issues, event opportunities, and best of all shared solutions. Without this shared vision or goal, I don’t know if such collaboration can exist. Because of this standardization and common use of the technology platform to send/receive referrals, the ‘how will this work’ question that can often impede growth is eliminated and other more substantial conversations can emerge. The members of the PAServes Greater Pittsburgh network are organizations ready and willing to do things differently. They recognized a disconnected and fragmented community of resources and took the steps necessary to influence positive change. The desire to influence change and more so the actual willingness to participate in the shared platform are symptoms of a healthy community for veterans, service members, and their families.
So what does this mean? Let me illustrate by way of a personal “what if” scenario. Six years ago when I returned from military language school, I could have searched for ‘veteran employment Cincinnati Ohio’ and been directed, via paid search engine optimization, to the local AmericaServes network. I could have clicked a simple ‘needs assistance’ tab and been contacted within 24-48 hours by a trained intake specialist and uncovered my immediate employment need. However, they would have uncovered my desires to utilize some of my benefits and also consolidate some of outstanding debts. Thus, they would have sent three separate referrals, to three distinct organizations, in a matter of minutes, to organizations specializing in benefits services, financial services, and employment services. They would have all gotten my information and they would have contacted me. I wouldn’t have to go to multiple organizations, spread throughout the city, making separate appointments and spending hours driving and waiting to find out whether or not they could actually help me. OR, what actually ended up happening, was, I rolled up my sleeves and dealt with my employment issues on my own and never really addressed the benefits and financial needs until years later.
I think most would agree the first option sounds a lot better, for both me as the client and the service organizations. The client can avoid the stress and delays of multiple appointments and possibility of not meeting eligibility requirements. Service organizations are sent pre-screened, program-eligible clients. What is most exciting is scenario one exists. There are plenty of dedicated, passionate individuals serving veterans, service members, and their families to the best of their ability across this county. However, only a few communities have upgraded their business model for service delivery and took not just a small step, but a giant leap towards community collaboration. The AmericaServes program provides the backbone framework to allow for safe, effective, and timely client information sharing that drives each local collective impact model.
“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” – Henry Ford.
Let us not just come together, but let us truly work together.