Guest commentary: It takes a valley: bringing hope and healing to our veterans
In years past, when the summer nights began to shorten and the morning sun took longer to warm the Roaring Fork Valley, Russ, a veteran who served three years in the Navy, would begin to prepare for hardship. While income in the valley picked up for many with the influx of winter tourists, Russ’ seasonal construction work would dwindle and bills would go unpaid. He was able to keep a roof over his head during the busier summer months but lost his apartment when his income dwindled; he was forced to move his few belongings outdoors, settling in a remote site where he pitched a tent and faced the elements alone.
Russ would come in to town for assistance with food and occasional shelter and found support from area nonprofits, but he was hesitant to re-engage with the community and unsure about resources that could help change his situation. It took an angel who was willing to meet him at his makeshift home, to stand beside him and slowly and persistently coax him to give the community a shot. This angel came in the form of a feisty social worker with a passion for veterans and the backing of an organization equipped to provide holistic care.
Lydia DeLaRosa, a veteran support specialist with Rocky Mountain Human Services, has a track record of success. The work that she is doing, in collaboration with her colleagues, other nonprofits, veteran advocates and public resources is making a dramatic dent in the number of homeless veterans in Colorado. Between 2012 and 2013, Colorado found housing for 827 homeless vets, posting the second largest decrease in veteran homelessness in the country. Lydia lives in Grand Junction, but with support from the local community and the new Western Slope Veterans Coalition, Rocky Mountain Human Services now has a part-time office at Carbondale’s Third Street Center and a home-base in the valley to better serve veterans like Russ.
What developed into the Western Slope Veterans Coalition began as the vision of retired Lt. Colonel Dick Merritt many years ago. “The Colonel,” as he is affectionately known to many, believed strongly in the responsibility of the community to care for those who served and sacrificed for their country. He, and other committed area veterans, were introduced to Annie Davies, director of communications and development at Rocky Mountain Human Services, early in 2014. They explained their need for strong organizational support to bring together the disparate resources for veterans and create an umbrella to share information, best practices and an infrastructure to ensure that the spectrum of mental and physical health, housing and employment needs that Veterans can face are addressed in an efficient and effective manner.
At the same time, Rocky Mountain Human Services was looking for opportunities to improve its statewide services in rural Colorado and create a stronger network between its Front Range and Grand Junction offices. Rocky Mountain Human Services has over 23 years of experience providing resources, case management and direct services to Veterans, families and individuals with cognitive disabilities throughout Colorado and prides itself on the ability to keep administrative expenses to 11.5 percent — well below the industry average.
The intersection of local support and organizational capacity — along with a lot of meetings and hard work — resulted in the development of the Western Slope Veterans Coalition. The Colonel’s passion and vision are contagious, and the group has grown steadily to include members of the Aspen and Glenwood Springs Elks, support from the Disabled American Veterans, advice from area human service agencies and Veteran Service Officers and information sharing and referrals from nonprofits that care for veterans including Huts for Vets, the Salvation Army and Feed My Sheep.
The Western Slope Veterans Coalition will celebrate the opening of their new office in Carbondale 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19, and invites the community to attend and join their efforts. The office, staffed part-time in the Third Street Center, will provide a “one-stop-shop” for veterans and their families to learn about and connect with local organizations and services. The office will also provide housing assistance, employment opportunities and support for veterans with traumatic brain injury.
Members of the Rocky Mountain Human Services staff will be at the open house to greet the community, including Lydia. She will be more than happy to chat with you about the clients she feels privileged to serve. Some of her favorites may even stop by, including a local veteran who made it out of the woods and won’t be spending this winter in a tent. A veteran who received help with his deposit for stable housing and assistance with the first month’s rent. A proud sailor who worked with Lydia on a budget to make his limited winter income last. A man who has seen hard times but now is connected with health care and a benefits counselor to ensure he receives the federal benefits he is entitled to for his service. A veteran named Russ … who has hope for the future and confidence that he will never be homeless again.
To learn more about Rocky Mountain Human Services, the open house or Western Slope Veterans Coalition, please contact Dick Merritt at 970-927-5178 or Annie Davies at 303-981-3966.
Western Slope Veterans Coalition Goals
• Eliminate veteran homelessness on the Western Slope.
• Prevent veteran suicide and improve the mental and physical health of veterans on the Western Slope.
• Support healthy and stable Veteran families.
The Western Slope Veterans Coalition will:
• Increase communication among organizations serving veterans.
• Increase outreach efforts to ensure every veteran and their family knows of available resources.
• Improve coordination and delivery of services across organizations — ensuring efficiency and no duplication of efforts.
• Create a one-stop shop for veterans and their families.
• Provide referral specialists to direct veterans to available community services and support.
• Serve as a hub for fundraising to support veterans and their families.
• Serve as a resource to local media, elected officials and community agencies.
• Convene speakers and provide a forum to discuss and implement best practices related to Veteran services.
It Takes a Valley: How You Can Help
• Attend the Western Slope Veterans Coalition open house on Tuesday, Aug. 19
• Learn more about the benefits your business can realize by hiring a Veteran through Rocky Mountain Human Service’ employment program.
• Invite a Western Slope Veterans Coalition member to your next business, professional association or networking meeting to share more about our services
• Become a veteran mentor.
• Support the Coalition through a personal donation or through your business, or include the Western Slope Veterans Coalition as a beneficiary of your next party or event.
Annie Davies is director of communications and development for Rocky Mountain Human Services. She can be reached at 303-636-5918 or firstname.lastname@example.org.