St. Louis is one of the first 25 cities where a new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' initiative to give veterans more educational and employment opportunities launches this summer.
The new Veterans Economic Communities Initiative (VECI) will link veterans with jobs and services offered by businesses, schools and nonprofits in local communities, to help "transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans in the community achieve long-term economic success," according to the VA.
To reach its goal, the VA is pairing with the St. Louis-based national non-profit The Mission Continues, which also helps veterans "reintegrate, network, and find their niche in the community and continue to serve after their military time is ended," according to senior vice president of programs and operations Meredith Knopp.
"We want to challenge you to continue to serve and reach your goals back home," she said.
With such "natural synergies" in action, Knopp said groups work with VECI is different in its approach to assisting veterans because it creates locally based resource centers drawing on area businesses, educational institutions and nonprofits.
"Everyone’s at a different place when they leave the military," Knopp said. "So what we want to do is create a wonderful collaboration through VECI, regardless of what their personal and professional goals are, they can go to one place, one centralized location where they can find those resources, and find those answers, find those mentors and find ways to plug into their community that will give them an individualized support network to ensure they will be successful in reintegrating."
In St. Louis, where the VECI program launched this past week, the needs of veterans are great. According to the VA, there are some 200,000 veterans in the greater St. Louis area. While about 100,000 work throughout the region, the local veteran unemployment rate of 8.4 percent still lags behind the non-veteran unemployment rate of 9.2 percent.
That's why Knopp said her organization will act as "a rallying force for businesses to help them in understanding the unique skills our veterans possess, and help them translate what they see on a resume to ensure they are hiring veterans for these really tough skills and leadership roles that they are in desperate need for in their organization."
Some veterans' goals may be furthering their education, Knopp said. In St. Louis, the group is already working with several local universities, such as Washington University, St. Louis University, and Webster University, to highlight scholarship programs and other opportunities.
Still, Knopp said other veterans may just be looking for a way to connect with their community. That's why The Mission Continues will offer more service fellowships and expand its programming with local nonprofits.
A veteran herself, Knopp said she knows how important a sense of purpose is to veterans.
"Especially veterans of this generation, they come back from serving our country, and instead of hearing the thank you's they want to hear the 'We still need you,'" she said. "That’s what our veterans are looking for: opportunities to serve their communities."
That's why The Mission Continues will be expanding its programming in St. Louis, offering more of its six-month fellowships with local nonprofits and building up its so-called "service platoons" that tackle community issues.
Eventually, the community-oriented VECI program will be expanded to 50 cities.
"I would encourage vets no matter where they are, (whether they) feel they’ve reintegrated, or if they feel like they’ve reached a roadblock with educational goals, or doing more in terms of employment, find the VECI initiative...and don’t wait," Knopp said. "Take advantage of unique opportunity so you are never not reaching personal and professional goals."