Helping veterans move forward with their lives — whether through wheelchair-accessible minivans or healing programs like fly-fishing retreats — is the common mission of the six organizations that have won Newman's Own Award grants this year.
The organizations were honored in a ceremony Wednesday at the Pentagon Hall of Heroes.
This year's top winner, receiving $50,000, is Operation Mend at the University of California at Los Angeles, which connects the military's resources with UCLA's surgical and medical specialists. The program provides complex surgeries and mental health care to service members and veterans, and includes families in troops' care. It takes care of all costs not covered by health insurance, including transportation to and from Los Angeles, housing, care coordination, and psychological and social services. That includes meeting patients at their airplane doors, said Melanie Gideon, director of the program.
The five other winners each received $30,000, for a total award of $200,000 this year.
Since establishing the awards in 1999, Newman's Own has recognized 164 programs with awards totaling more than $1.3 million. This year, 300 entries were received, and six judges evaluated them based on their impact on their respective communities, their creativity and innovation. Among the judges was Mary Winnefeld, wife of Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The annual competition is sponsored by Newman's Own, Fisher House Foundation and Military Times.
Each recognized organization is making a difference one veteran at a time. For example, facial reconstruction surgery at UCLA has allowed veterans to once again close their eyes to sleep, or to smile.
Retired Marine Cpl. Josh Himan, injured in Afghanistan in 2009, came to the ceremony to show his support for one of the winning organizations, Help Our Military Heroes, which gave him a wheelchair-accessible van.
"I'm a financial analyst, an entrepreneur. It's mandatory that I be able to drive," he said. "I have a business luncheon today that I was able to set up myself. I'm here today because I believe in them. They've been able to affect so many lives."
Partnering with organizations in the private sector is important in an environment in which military commitments and requirements are rising while the military budget remains under pressure, said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the ceremony.
"We're just going to have to help each other as Americans to make sure that we not only get the job done, but also that we partner, public and private, in order to take care of our young men and women, America's sons and daughters who continue to raise their right hands, even though they know what they're getting into," Dempsey said.
Even as the wars in the Middle East are winding down, "we know our work is far from over," said Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation. "For many service members, veterans and their families, the wars' impact will last a lifetime. Helping troops and veterans is never to be viewed as charity, but as the nation's solemn duty."
The 2015 winners have the horsepower and expertise to provide needed services for troops and veterans, said Jeffrey Smith, vice president of operations with Newman's Own Inc. Profits and royalties from sales of the company's products, such as salad dressings and pasta sauces, are donated to charity.
Operation Mend is an example of the partnerships mentioned by Dempsey, connecting resources within the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments with the surgical and other skills of medical specialists at UCLA.
"We need each other to do this work," said Dana Katz, director of community engagement and buddy programs for Operation Mend.
Their $50,000 award will be used to support the program and clinical services, Gideon said. That includes a new, intensive, three-week structured treatment program for patients who require more than regular outpatient care for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
"We saw a huge gap in our care for our patients," Katz said. "We're going to work really hard with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department to move the needle."
cut for space: The expansion of the structured treatment program for PTS and TBI is part of Warrior Care Network, a medical network funded by Wounded Warrior Project. The network includes three other programs based at academic medical centers. Wounded Warrior Project and the four programs have committed more than $100 million to the effort, including $7.5 million that each medical center will contribute through their own fundraising efforts.
Winners of $30,000 grants:
Kids' Club, Southwestern Illinois College Foundation , Belleville, Illinois
As soon as they receive their grant, the Kids' Club will launch free child care for military and veteran parents enrolled in the community college. Child care seemed to be a burden for enrolled military parents, said Suzette Hechst, child care director. "The parents are motivated to do well. But they want a safe, educational space for their children," she said.
Child care will be provided on site, and will be open whenever the college is open, night or day, she said. Care will be provided for children ages 3 to 12, to include hot meals. Children will participate in research-based programs; parents and children will have access to free tutoring programs.
While it will be available only at the Belleville location, students enrolled at other locations can use the child care there, too, she said. For example, there are classes at Scott Air Force Base, just a three-minute ride from Belleville on public transportation.
"I am so excited about this [grant and honor] that I don't even have words. The need is so great, and the timing is amazing. We were struggling with how to help these families, and then got this phone call," Hechst said.
Tech for Troops Project, Richmond, Virginia
This fledgling nonprofit has realized the great need for computers among veterans and the organizations that serve them. But its success has posed some challenges. "We were at the point of saying, 'How are we going to do this?' We asked that every day, and then we got the grant," said Laurie Phillips, who founded the organization with her son Chris.
After a number of his friends returned from Afghanistan and were unable to get jobs, she said her son asked her if they could do something to help, given her background in computers.
The nonprofit accepts computers donated by businesses, wipes their data for free and refurbishes or recycles the computers — saving the companies money they previously paid to recycle computers, Phillips said. It also employs veterans to help process the computers.
About 3,000 computers have been taken in over the last few years,with 500 being donated directly to nonprofits that either provide computers directly to veterans or put computers in their facilities. Veterans may use them for training, for getting online access to their benefits, and to communicate with family members and potential employers, for example.
Tech for Troops recycles the unusable computers, using the proceeds to pay people to process machines.
They've had requests from all over the country for computer donations, Phillips said. The grant will help them as they look for options to expand, and in their efforts to expand their training for veterans.
"A lot of veterans come back to thank us," said Kelly O'Connor, executive director of Tech for Troops. "At a veteran networking event last week, a veteran stood up and told us she got her job because of a computer donated by Tech for Troops. And now her job is working with veterans."
Recently, Phillips said, a case manager at a veteran transitional housing facility came to get 11 computers. "As he left, he said, 'You guys are changing lives.'"
A Home for Healing, Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation, Bozeman, Montana
The peaceful environment and quiet waters in southwest Montana are the setting for this therapeutic fly-fishing program, which has brought in 450 veterans and service members to experience its healing benefits. The Newman's Own grant will help the foundation in pursuit of a facility that will require renovations to accommodate wounded warriors, said Faye Nelson, executive director.
Since the program began in 2007, Nelson said, "we've been renting various facilities for troops coming here, subject to market availability."
"Lodging is central to the bonding" that happens among those who take part in the program, she said.
A Home for Healing was founded by retired Marine Col. Eric Hastings, who found solace when he returned to Montana in 1969 from flight missions in Vietnam by going straight to the water, tying a fly to a line and casting. He and Dr. Volney Steele discovered they shared a common vision of bringing warriors with visible and unseen wounds from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to find the peace and hope they experienced through fly fishing.
Through donations, the program pays for everything — transportation, accommodations and meals. A number of volunteers help cook and provide other services. The program provides a complete fly-fishing outfit, from clothing to rod and reel, which participants may take with them when they return home and possibly continue to fly fish.
"We're limited in the number of experiences we can offer based on the number of places we can find," Nelson said. "By having our own facility, we'll have to turn fewer people away."
Adaptive Vans Award Program, Help Our Military Heroes, Easton, Connecticut
Best friends Laurie Hollander and Marybeth Vandergrift recognized that there was a gap between the benefits provided to wounded warriors and their need for wheelchair-accessible minivans. So they, along with Hollander's husband Ted, founded Help Our Military Heroes, providing funding to bridge that gap.
"The gentleman today cried," said Laurie Hollander, on her way back from presenting a minivan to Army Spc. Edward Guldin on Aug. 26. "He hasn't driven in five years. But he drove away in that minivan."
Since 2009, they have helped fund 52 wheelchair accessible minivans at a cost of $1.3 million. The cost to modify a van ranges from $15,000 to $40,000, Hollander said, depending on the veteran's needs.
The average is about $22,000, so the $30,000 grant they receive from Newman's Own will pay to outfit roughly one and a half vans, she said.
Troops find out about the program through referrals from a variety of sources: other veterans, from the medical facilities where they are receiving treatment, from their wounded warrior regiments. The organization does background checks, and works with the mobility dealer and the medical team from the VA to determine the vans' specifications. That also depends on whether the wounded warrior will drive the van or only be a passenger.
"In the world of nonprofits, we're small," Hollander said. "This is one little grassroots effort in Connecticut. ... We're 100 percent volunteer, and we still have day jobs. One hundred percent of everybody's donations goes to our mission. That was a commitment we made when we decided to do this. The three of us take care of administrative costs.
"Everyone drives. When you can see a person with no arms or no legs now able to drive, it's amazing," she said.
Zero Day Innovation, Dewitt, Michigan
When Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Chuck Embs found out there were 60 homeless veterans in a shelter just five miles from his home, he decided to do something. That something evolved into Zero Day Inc., which provides training and support services to help veterans on the path to self-sufficiency and independence.
The idea is to get them into an environment with other veterans and counselors to help them figure out what they want to get out of life. They may pursue training and education, or they may go directly to employment.
But EMbs stresses that this is no welfare mission. Participants have the opportunity not just to have jobs, but to be a part of community revitalization. "Veterans can feel good about it," he said. "They're focusing on improving conditions in the community. We're putting veterans on work crews to take down blighted properties, for example. We teach them how to be good employees, but also develop skills. ... We are an employer. We put them on the payroll."
Zero Day provides accredited vocational training, life skills mentoring, licensed therapy support, job coaching and placement. Zero Day also partners with other employers who offer apprenticeships.
Embs' co-founder is Tim Hunnicutt, a successful developer, who works with the veterans on the various projects. Zero Day hired its first cohort of veterans in May 2013, and since then, 40 vets have entered the program and done well enough to pursue employment, transportation and their own living arrangements.
Embs said Zero Day recognizes that not every veteran wants to be in the trades. The Newman's Own grant will help in their efforts for an innovation center to help entrepreneurs, with a single location providing assistance with market research and other aspects important to running a business.
They will initially help four service-disabled veterans start their businesses, Embs said.