The VA St. Louis Health Care System hosted a veterans’ resource fair Saturday in downtown St. Louis. Several hundred people attended the event, which expanded on the St. Louis VA’s fall Homeless Veterans Stand Down event to provide employment, education, health and legal services in addition to resources to help veterans find housing.
There were bounce houses and magic tricks for the kids, a free barbecue lunch and even a portable barber shop where veterans could get a trim and a shave. There was also a raffle with prizes that included free tickets to Rams and Cardinals games.
The VA has been hosting three Stand Down events a year for several years as part of an effort to end homelessness among veterans. This fall they partnered with Chicago-based non-profit Warrior Summit to wrap their fall Stand Down event around a one-stop shop of veterans’ services, more than doubling the number of agencies and vendors attending the fair. The organizers also added a Welcome Home ceremony to recognize veterans and members of the military who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Marcena Gunter of the VA St. Louis Health Care System said a typical Stand Down has about 60 organizations offering resources and information. The Welcome Home / Warrior Summit fair on Saturday had almost 150. Employers looking to hire veterans also attended the fair for the first time. Wells Fargo, Whelan Security and Daugherty Business Solutions all had booths at the event.
“We have employers who are on hand today that actually have jobs available and are ready to hire veterans, and looking for individuals that have the skill-sets that our veterans carry,” said Gunter. “We know that our veterans are very, very talented and sometimes it the opportunity where we just have to match them up with the right employers.”
The idea of a one-stop shop for veterans services wrapped around attendance incentives like free food and sports tickets came from Warrior’s Summit, who has hosted 4 similar events in Chicago. This is the first time Warrior’s Summit has brought the idea to St. Louis, and they partnered with VA St. Louis to coordinate facilities and organizations.
Warriors Summit President James Flagg said the goal of an event like Saturday’s fair is to help veterans make the transition from active duty to civilian life a little more seamless.
“It’s a challenge for a veteran to go to 145 different office buildings or connect with a 145 different representatives from different companies. So we put all of those services in one location. We get the VA out of their facility, we get the businesses out of their offices, and we bring the veterans to them and that bridges the gap in services,” said Flagg, who served with the Illinois National Guard.
Flagg said that a lot of veterans say they have skills to offer or that they need help with something but they don’t know where to get it. At the same time, a lot of organizations have all of these resources to offer but have trouble connecting with veterans.
“So we bridge the gap in services by bringing everybody together and tie it in with the food and the tickets and make it a community event,” said Flagg.
Warrior Summit works to provide a range of services to veterans, including everything from benefits to child and family services, but the organization puts a special focus on two areas of special concern for veterans: curtailing the high number of veteran suicides by putting an emphasis on mental health, and bringing down the number of unemployed veterans by connecting them to jobs and education.
“That comes directly with our partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, because they are best in class in providing mental health services for vets, but again many vets don’t know how to access VA health care, or where to access it, so we provide that here,” said Flagg.
Air Force veteran Anthony Gray of Cairo, Ill. attended the fair. He said the VA is helping him stay clean of drugs and put his life back together. He is on a waiting list for an apartment voucher provided to veterans by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Gray said he’s attended other Stand Down events and this one was noticeably bigger.
“They offered a lot of help with jobs,” said Gray. “That’s another area I’m working on.”
He signed up with the job agency Hero 2 Hired, and is hoping to find a job in manufacturing.
Army veteran Dwayne Gladney volunteered at the fair through St. Louis Community College, where he studies civil engineering. He’s been helping out at Stand Down events for more than a year.
“Every time I always meet somebody else,” said Gladney. “Today I found out I could sign up to be a volunteer with the Honor Flight that goes to Washington, D.C.”
He said he likes to volunteer to help veterans who may feel like they have been forgotten.
“Me myself, I know how to go online and find programs and form numbers and things like that. But a lot of these veterans that came from another generation, they’re not experienced with going online,” said Gladney. “It makes me feel good to be able to help them in that respect.”
Gladney was honorably discharged from the army a year and a half ago after an injury to his hip classified him as disabled.
That’s another reason he likes to volunteer with the VA—it helps him stay informed about the services he’s entitled to.
“I’m learning every time I get down, so I think I’ll keep doing it,” said Gladney. “Because one day I’ll be hopefully one of the older guys that one of the younger guys are teaching how to do something.”