Before a chance meeting at a basketball game a few years ago, Vietnam veteran Mike Donnelly had never heard of the Quality of Life Plus Program. But that nonprofit organization has changed his life, he said.

The charity sponsored a project where engineering students at the University of Cincinnati designed and built a custom device that lifts his scooter carrier/lift to the hitch on the back of his car. The Department of Veterans Affairs had provided him with the scooter and a carrier/lift, but he and his wife were unable to lift the 200-pound carrier enough to attach it to the hitch on his large car.

Donnelly’s exposure to Agent Orange in the Army caused him numerous health problems. With his mobility issues, including problems with balance, he can’t walk any distance. Since receiving the device in May, he’s been able to transport the scooter, opening up many more activities.

It’s projects like this one that resulted in the Quality of Life Plus Program receiving the highest honor, and a $50,000 award, in the 2019 Newman’s Own Awards competition. Four other organizations are each receiving $37,500 in the competition, which is in its 20th year of honoring non-profit organizations for their innovative programs created to improve military quality of life. In those 20 years, more than $2 million has been awarded to 174 non-profit programs.

This year, more than 200 entries were received in the competition, which is sponsored by Newman’s Own, the Fisher House Foundation and media partner Military Times. The winners will be honored at a ceremony at the Pentagon in early 2020.

“At Newman’s Own, we are honored to carry on Paul Newman’s legacy by supporting organizations that help improve the quality of life of our military members and their families,” said Jeff Smith, vice president of operations at Newman’s Own, Inc. Actor Paul Newman, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific during World War II, later came up with his own line of salad dressings, sauces, pizzas and other items, and determined that all profits from Newman’s Own sales would go to charities.

The grant will help Quality of Life Plus Program with more projects like Donnelly’s, said Amber Humphrey, Midwest region program manager for QL+, and one of the employees who met Donnelly by chance in late 2017. But the organization is also grateful to be getting the word out through this recognition, she said, in hopes that more veterans and family members will present some challenges for students to create more solutions to improve veterans’ quality of life.

“That’s where the magic happens,” Humphrey said. “We’re providing veterans something, but the veteran is also providing something for the students, helping make them better engineers. The veteran is their client, and they have to make their client happy.”

The students are eager to work on these hands-on projects that make a difference in people’s lies, she said, and many form bonds with the veterans in the process. Many of the students have veterans in the family, she said, adding to their desire to work on the projects.

“To see these kids work, it’s unbelievable,” Donnelly said. He’s now working with another team of students from the University of Cincinnati, as they develop a convertible cover for his scooter. Because of his skin problems, he must avoid the sun.

“They’re really hands-on. I thought they’d be shy, but they’re asking questions, coming up with ideas as they’re looking at the scooter,” he said.

The team of female engineering students took some measurements of the scooter on Dec. 9.

The nonprofit was founded in 2009 by Air Force veteran Jon Monett, a retired Central Intelligence Agency executive and a Cal Poly-trained engineer, to fill gaps in veterans’ lives by developing devices that aren’t currently on the market, or provided by the Veterans Health Administration.

Veterans from all generations are eligible for the assistance. QL+ is now at 19 universities, and all the schools always want more projects, Humphrey said. QL+ recruits the veterans, identifies the challenges for students as a senior design project, and with faculty advisers, monitors the projects through completion.

Since 2009, QL+ has sponsored 221 projects. This school year, QL+ is working with 281 students on 59 projects. In some cases, the nonprofit pays the school an upfront fee, in others, it pays for materials. After the students narrow their concept to one solid idea, the nonprofit asks them for a budget so they can justify how they are going to spend the money. If there is any travel involved for the veteran and family members, the nonprofit pays for that, because they don’t veterans to incur any expenses, Humphrey said.

Some of the projects solve one veteran’s challenge; others can help a lot of people. A number of devices help veterans with issues related to workouts and activities.

One such device was built by engineering students at Virginia Tech, helping an Army veteran in Maine avoid tracking her muddy wheelchair wheels into her house. The device, mounted to the porch, lifts the avid outdoorsman’s wheelchair just enough so that she can take off the dirty wheels and put clean wheels on it before entering her house.

In another case, a Korean War veteran with Parkinson’s disease sought assistance with his episodes of “freezing of the gait” – brief episodes of inability to move the feet forward despite the intention to walk. At Cal Poly, a student developed a device that attaches to any cane or walker and uses clinically proven visual and audio cues to help him overcome those episodes. Realizing there was a need for this device among others with Parkinson’s disease, the student graduated early and started a company to design and build a similar device called the NexStride.

“We want veterans and families to reach out and say, ‘I could really use this, or this has always bothered me.’ Maybe we could make this into an engineering problem or some kind of [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] solution,” Humphrey said.

Other Newman’s Own Award winners, each receiving $37,500, are:

Drive for Hope, a program of the nonprofit Hope for the Warriors. This comprehensive driving program helps service members and veterans regain their ability to drive — and their independence — following a catastrophic wound, injury and/or illness, with costs paid by the organization. Working with the Driver Rehabilitation Center of Excellence, Drive for Hope provides a comprehensive driving program at no cost to the warriors, working with medical providers, and helping them regain driving skills in adaptive vehicles. Hope for the Warriors, founded by military families at Camp Lejeune, N.C. in 2006, provides a variety of programs for service members, veterans and families focused on transition, health and wellness, peer engagement and connections to community resources.

Stack-Up Overwatch Program is a suicide prevention and crisis intervention initiative that uses online gaming to connect veterans to a team of trained and certified crisis management volunteers, around the clock. The connection is made by way of Stack-Up’s Discord channel, where the online gamers communicate with each other in real time. The Overwatch program began in January, 2018, to provide a mechanism for those who need someone to talk to, especially around the holidays. Through the nonprofit’s partnership with PsychArmor Institute, volunteers go through specified training and evaluation. Stack Up’s mission is to bring comfort and friendship to veterans coping with PTSD or transitioning to civilian life.

The Rosie Network’s Service2CEO initiative is a 12-month individualized entrepreneurship and literacy training program offered at no cost to military spouses, veterans and service members transitioning to civilian life. Participants can choose between two tracks: launching a business, and growing a business. The program is housed in a shared office environment in the Military Entrepreneur Development Center in San Diego and at Rosie chapters in Seattle; at Fort Belvoir, Va.; at Camp Pendleton, Calif.; and San Antonio. More than 60 percent of the participants are military spouses. The Rosie Network based in San Diego, was founded by local Navy SEAL spouses.

The Military Family Wellness Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center provides free, evidence-based treatment for post-traumatic stress, depression, and other mental health needs to veterans, active duty, Guard and Reserve members and their families, including military caregivers. The center provides assessment and treatment for those who don’t qualify for, don’t benefit from, or may be reluctant to use traditional providers. It’s located in Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry, which is the largest in the U.S. The cost-free services are provided with confidentiality and privacy, minimal bureaucracy, and a wide range of treatment options. The center also provides tele-mental health services to patients who are unable physically to come to appointments, by conducting sessions over a secure audio/video link.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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