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Art, entrepreneurship and education programs help veterans transition to civilian life in St. Louis

Robert Tebbe, Darcella Craven, and Sheila Suderwalla joined Don Marsh on Tuesday to discuss how their organizations are serving the veteran community.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Robert Tebbe, Darcella Craven, and Sheila Suderwalla joined Don Marsh on Tuesday to discuss how their organizations are serving the veteran community.

Military veterans often face significant challenges in re-acclimating to ‘normal’ life in the United States. These challenges may be rooted in mental, emotional and psychological issues resulting from the trauma and stresses of war. Physical injuries can be seen, but internal struggles (what Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton calls “invisible wounds”) frequently remain hidden from the outside world.

Even for those veterans who are not struggling with major psychological issues, the process of reintegrating into society can be daunting.

Nationally, suicide statistics and reported inadequacies in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care system have drawn attention to the needs of the veteran community. Several organizations in the city of St. Louis are working to address these needs in unique ways.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh spoke with leaders from three different programs about their efforts to serve veterans in the greater St. Louis area. We've summarized the services these programs provide below.

Artists First

Sheila Suderwalla, executive director of Artists First, describes her organization as a “non-traditional support program.” By non-traditional, she means that participants receive care that doesn’t exactly qualify as therapy.

Drawing by one of the veterans participating in the Artists First program.
Credit Kim Oswalt | St. Louis Public Radio
Drawing by one of the veterans participating in the Artists First program.

The organization’s flagship program created a space for adults with disabilities to come together and express themselves through art. After having conversations with several focus groups earlier this year, Suderwalla discovered the need to create a similar group for service members and veterans.

There are approximately 20 individuals participating in the group so far,  and Suderwalla would love to see that number grow as more veterans come to recognize the value in processing their experiences through art. She has seen the healing effects firsthand as men and women come to the shop to work in a variety of media, including painting, poetry and ceramics.

“I think a lot of people, especially people who have endured trauma, need to be heard,” Suderwalla said. “And expressing it through art is a very safe way to do that.”

Veterans who are interested in participating in the program are free to drop by the shop at their convenience to work on projects. The group’s meetings are held on the first and third Monday of each month, but Artists First staff members are available every day to have conversations and teach artistic techniques.

Veterans Business Resource Center

The Veterans Business Resource Center (VBRC) provides free business consultations for service members and their families in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois.

It has two main programs: "Boots to Business" and "Reboot." Boots to Business helps veterans transitioning out of the military to turn their ideas into successful enterprises, and Reboot provides assistance for veterans looking to expand their existing businesses.

Executive Director Darcella Craven said the organization uses a five-phase process, which takes clients from an initial assessment all the way through implementation.

Many of the skills veterans acquire during their military experience can be transferred to entrepreneurial enterprises, although Craven explained the VBRC often has to show its clients that they are already well-equipped for the challenges of operating a small business.

“Many times when they’re transitioning, they forget that they understand logistics … that they have influence, they know how to get people to move from point A to point Z," Craven said.

Providing encouragement and assistance for veterans with that entrepreneurial drive is the mission of the VBRC.

Southwestern Illinois College

Located near Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois, Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC) is recognized for its status as a veteran-friendly school.

Robert Tebbe, who is in charge of the Veterans Center at SWIC, is also the director of financial aid and student employment. He said that out of the approximately 20,000 students at SWIC, about 1,200 are military veterans.

The two-year community college offers veterans an opportunity to use their support from the G.I. Bill to obtain the necessary certifications for a number of careers or to earn an associate’s degree with the option of continuing their education at a four-year university.

“They earned their benefit, and it’s our job to serve them and help provide them with that benefit,” Tebbe explained.

Students who are service members or veterans often excel in their academic careers. Tebbe attributes this to qualities shared by those with a military background, including an ability to show up on time, complete assignments, and study hard.

These skills, and others, Tebbe said, help veterans stand out as exemplary students who enjoy being challenged.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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