$1 million gift to launch vet support plan

A national foundation is expected to announce Tuesday that it’s giving $1 million to put Charlotte at the forefront of a new approach to helping recently discharged veterans more easily connect to jobs, services and educational opportunities.

The Walmart Foundation says additional grant money – in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – could be given to local agencies that provide key services for the initiative.

The three-year initiative is called Welcome Home North Carolina, and it will operate under the guidance of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, a New York-based organization that solves issues facing former service personnel and their families.

Among the institute’s responsibilities will be distributing the $1 million, said Jim McDonough of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

“Our approach in America to helping veterans is very fragmented and this is a chance for North Carolina to lead the nation in changing that way of thinking,” he said.

“What makes Charlotte the right place to start is that it is already working hard to address this issue. The community is energized, including the private, public and nonprofit sectors.”

Supporters are likening the initiative to Charlotte’s recently adopted “coordinated assessment” plan for the homeless, which linked local agencies to create a communitywide homeless services system.

Welcome Home North Carolina calls for all programs that aid vets and their families to join forces, even to the point of holding one another accountable in cases where the system fails to help a veteran as expected, representatives said.

A rollout of the initiative is set for later this summer, including a website to show veterans all the services available to them in the region. Lesser-known agencies that provide such services will be added to the site as they are identified, representatives said.

A national search by the Walmart Foundation revealed Charlotte is ahead of many other communities in its work to coordinate services for veterans, said Kathleen McLaughlin, president of the Walmart Foundation.

She specifically cited the work of Charlotte Bridge Home, a nonprofit created in 2012 to help recently discharged vets return to civilian life. This includes identifying their needs and connecting them to jobs, educational opportunities and social or health services.

McLaughlin also lauded the city’s corporate community, singling out Bank of America for its support of veterans’ causes. The bank has committed more than $800,000 in the past year to support organizations helping vets, including Charlotte Bridge Home and the Central Piedmont Community College Veteran’s Resource Center.

Representatives of Charlotte Bridge Home will be among 275 local, state and national veteran advocates at the Charlotte Convention Center Tuesday when Welcome Home North Carolina is unveiled.

“About 40,000 organizations have been formed in recent years to help the military deal with transitioning back into civilian life, but how do veterans discover which of those organizations is the one they need to go to?” McLaughlin said.

“It’s not just a matter of finding jobs, health services or housing. A lot of research has shown there’s a great divide in society’s understanding of the military experience and how challenging it is to transition back into civilian life.”

The Charlotte initiative is the second program of its type kicked off in recent weeks. The first, in New York City, was launched six weeks ago, also with help from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

Charlotte has been identified by veterans advocates as a “magnet city” for former military personnel looking for higher-paying jobs and a lower cost of living. In all, there are 148,000 vets in the area, including a wave of up to 10,000 who moved here in 2013-14, experts say. Statistics show as many as 25,000 area veterans are low-income, with 3,100 in danger of being homeless.

In the next few months, a local “quarterback” agency will be selected to lead Welcome Home North Carolina, and money will be provided for it to add staff, representatives said.

Among those under consideration is Charlotte Bridge Home, which first attracted the Walmart Foundation’s attention when it convened a meeting of local veteran services agencies in September. The intent of that meeting was to better coordinate veterans services, spot duplication and search for gaps in the system.

Charlotte Bridge Home – with a staff of seven and an annual budget of $600,000 – has already created partnerships with 100 community service agencies that help veterans. And it has enrolled 54 “veteran-friendly” employers in an alliance of companies that are working to hire and retain veterans.

Still, Cindi Basenspiler, head of Charlotte Bridge Home, says the agency’s efforts have been “fledgling” because it didn’t have enough money to go big. That’s about to change with the Walmart grant, which she says calls for Charlotte agencies to link up with those in 10 surrounding North Carolina counties.

“This initiative will crystallize our ability to provide needed services, track outcomes and improve our processes,” she said in a statement.

If all goes as planned in the next three years, Welcome Home North Carolina will spread to three other regions of the state, starting with the Raleigh-Durham area, officials said.

Local agencies working with the effort will include the American Red Cross and the Veterans Services Division of Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. The latter is responsible for ensuring the 57,000 veterans in Mecklenburg County are aware of their benefits on the federal, state and local level.

Stacy Lowry of Mecklenburg County Support Services says her office connected local veterans with $23 million in direct compensation last year.

Lowry says the new initiative “will allow our community to no longer place the onus on the veteran and their family to navigate the system, looking for resources. Trained staff ... who have knowledge of all the participating agencies will be able to connect veterans more quickly to services they need.”

For veteran services

Welcome Home North Carolina will not launch until the summer. However, veterans in need of help connecting to services can call Charlotte Bridge Home at 704-332-8802 or visit: www.charlottebridgehome.org