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How do you best serve and meet the needs of more than 55,000 veterans and their families in Jefferson and Shelby counties?
That is the question United Way of Central Alabama, Vettes-4-Vets, and a coalition of veteran service organizations intend to answer through a new groundbreaking study to be launched by the Office for Military Families and Veterans at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, this Spring.
About a year ago, Vettes-4-Vets board member, Jim Williams, recognized that there had never been a comprehensive needs assessment supporting the veterans community in metro Birmingham.
According to Mark Davis, founder of Vettes-4-Vets, when Jim Williams has an idea about doing a study or developing new public policy, people in the state of Alabama listen.
A retired Lt Colonel U.S. Army, Williams founded and served for 27 years as the Executive Director of Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), the state’s foremost public policy organization.
“Douglas MacArthur said, “old soldiers never die.” Well, I guess old researchers never die either. I still try to keep my fingers in things that are important,” said Williams.
Purpose of the study
It was little over a year ago, Williams connected local veterans service groups with Dr. David L Albright, Director of the Office for Military Families and Veterans at the University of Alabama. Albright’s organization coordinates and facilitate collaborative research, education, and outreach across the state of Alabama among military families, veterans, and the organizations serving them.
Both Williams, Albright, and a coalition of veteran organizations decided that the purpose of the study is to discover the unmet needs and gaps in available services for veterans and their families in Jefferson and Shelby counties.
“We will be doing surveys and focus groups with veterans, their family members, community members, and veteran service organizations to find out what kind of work is going on in the community, what veterans’ and their families’ needs are, where we might be able to better support them, all of which will assist us in identifying priorities for continued and future action and support. It is way for all of us to know what we are doing so we can aim our resources better toward helping the veterans and their families,” said Williams.
The Birmingham veterans study is not the first Albright has led in the State of Alabama, with the first having been in south Alabama, which was supported by the Community Foundation of South Alabama.
“They (Community Foundation) felt strongly that they needed to identify the actual needs and gaps so they could prioritize how to best support veterans and their families in their catchment area,” said Albright.
For example, one of the primary findings in the South Alabama study was that almost half of the veterans surveyed recognized adjusting to civilian life was difficult. As a result, the Foundation has begun directing its funds to address the military-to-civilian life transition.
United Way Support
Along with Vettes-4-Vets, one of the funding organizations and partners making the Jefferson-Shelby Needs Assessment possible is the United Way of Central Alabama. Through Priority Veteran, a United Way agency, they have witnessed first hand the challenges faced by veterans making the transition from military to civilian life.
“Jefferson and Shelby County are home to a number of veterans who are transitioning out of military service,” stated Lula Skowronek, Director of Priority Veteran.
“That transition can be a real challenge. Even Veterans who have been out of the military for years, have to navigate a complicated system to find what services are available. What we hope to accomplish with this needs assessment is to learn what veterans and their families see as their biggest needs, and where the gaps of service are. It will help us pull together all the groups that are working with veterans and create a seamless network of services,” she added.
Bottomline, the Jefferson/Shelby Needs Assessment will help groups that fundraise for veterans, such as Vettes-4-Vets, a group that has raised over $400,000 over the past 10 years using Corvettes to raise money for veterans, donate their monies in the most impactful way.
“As a fundraiser, we sometimes don’t know where the real needs are. We want to put our dollars where it has the most impact,” said Vettes-4-Vets Davis.
“We hope this study brings to the forefront , issues such as – do our vets need PTSD help? Do they need job training, social and medical help? We also want to look at family needs, so when a veteran has gone overseas, what does a family need when he or she is gone?”
University of Alabama’s Albright summed up the effort best “This is a wonderful opportunity for Vettes-4-Vets, United Way, other community and veteran stakeholders, and the University of Alabama to continue supporting Alabamian veterans and their families.”