Lion - June 2017

Serving Those Who Served

Joan Cary 2017-05-19 16:18:40

Lion Kevin Martin shakes hands with homeless veteran Sidney Lee Johnson after detailing ways he could help Johnson in San Jose, California. CLUBS IN CALIFORNIA WHOSE MEMBERS ARE VETERANS HELP VETERANS WITH PROBLEMS. Lion Kevin Martin shakes hands with homeless veteran Sidney Lee Johnson after detailing ways he could help Johnson in San Jose, California. In the Bay Area of California, Lion Kevin Martin sees the homeless seeking shelter in the bushes and under rooftop eaves, emerging from parks in the morning with their bundle of dirty blankets and eating dinner at nightfall from garbage cans behind fancy restaurants. He sees them begging for change. What Martin, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam era, a peer specialist at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto hospital and a Lion, can do is offer them a different kind of change—a change that will not just improve their day, but their life. “We have a tendency to look right through the homeless, or right past them,” says Martin. “But I can’t.” He stops. “Are you a veteran?” he asks them. “If they are,” he says, “I can do something to help.” Martin is a member of the Peninsula Veterans Lions Club, one of two veterans Lions clubs in California, the land of warm ocean breezes and golden sunsets, but also high-priced housing and the largest number of homeless veterans in the U.S. According to national statistics, more than 10 percent or 47,000 of the homeless adults in the country were veterans in 2015, and roughly one-fourth of them—about 11,000 —were living in California. 'I HAD SO MUCH HELP GIVEN TO ME. I THINK IT'S MY DUTY NOW TO HELP OTHER PEOPLE MAKE THAT TRANSITION AS SMOOTHLY AS POSSIBLE.' The Peninsula Veterans Lions Club and the San Francisco Veterans Lions serve all, but focus on aiding veterans and their families in need. Club members live by two creeds: “We Serve.” And the ethos of the U.S. military: “No Man Left Behind.” In his job with the VA, Martin searches for veterans in homeless shelters and on the streets, then helps them transition into a better life by introducing them to VA services where they can address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental illness, substance abuse, depression and joblessness—all issues that may have contributed to their homelessness. Once they are off the street and into housing, the Peninsula Lions step in with their “Move-In Basket” program that provides the veteran with an air mattress and a laundry basket chock-full of pots and pans, cleaning supplies, utensils—any and every thing to make their place a home where life can start anew. The veterans also help them find furniture and welcome them into the Lions’ fold, inviting them to Lion sponsored barbecues and events to form friendships and keep the lifeline of support flowing. Since 2012, the Peninsula Veterans Lions have delivered more than 350 baskets to veterans who have found housing through the VA’s Homeless Vets Reintegration Project (HVRP), says Kevin Guess, the club’s charter president. The club thanks generous donors but also works a concession stand at Stanford University sporting events to fundraise for goods and services the vets need. Veteran Tariq Collette relaxes at his apartment in San Jose with furniture and essentials given by Lions. Guess, a mental health social worker and post-Vietnam Army vet who had his own struggles, says, “For those of us who have struggled and were able to recover, this is a way to give back. Our mission is to help others get to where we’ve gotten.” Like many other Lions in his club, he and Martin know that the demons of war are seldom left overseas. “I suffered from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and severe depression,” says Martin. “I came out and went to work, but my injuries and my illnesses were so profound I found it hard to keep a job. ... I lived in a tent in a field of tall grass with a dog that didn’t bark at anybody but me. But I fought my way back. Through the VA, I learned how to live and think differently.” Now the Lions club is where many of his friends are and where his support network lies when he struggles with occasional PTSD episodes. “I had so much help given to me. I think it’s my duty now to help other people make that transition as smoothly as possible,” says 61-year-old Martin. “I don’t point and tell them to go that way. I like to take them by the hand and walk with them.” Iraq Army veteran Tariq Collette is one of those who sings the praises of men like Martin and Guess— Lions who helped him leave the old life behind. Collette, who served in infantry combat from 1991 to 1993, was penniless, unemployed and struggling with alcohol abuse when he arrived in California. He had seen trauma, both in Iraq and in his hometown of New Orleans when he was rescued by canoe during Hurricane Katrina. “I thought alcohol was going to make it all better, but it didn’t,” he says. “It just made the problem larger.” On the street in San Francisco he met Roland Ware, a Peninsula Lion. Ware introduced him to the VA and to the Lions, and in time, Collette checked himself into the VA program. Collette now works in San Francisco helping others who are struggling, and he lives in an apartment in San Jose with furniture and essentials received through Lions. “They have given me more than that though,” says Collette, 58. “They have given me encouragement, support and friendship. As soon as I get settled I’m going to be a Lion. It’s all about giving back, and we all need to, especially here. It’s an extremely large problem here.” “There are homeless veterans everywhere, I think,” responds Guess. “It’s not just here in California. Men and women are struggling. But it is a tremendously sad and ongoing issue here.“ “WE NEED TO LET THEM KNOW THEY HAVE NOT BEEN FORGOTTEN.” Another Peninsula Lions program recognizes that although 90 percent of the vets in the system are male, an increasing number in need are women, and not many programs are specifically designed to assist female veterans. For them, Lion Terry Catania organizes the club’s Women’s Makeover Program with the help of a local salon owner. Lions arrange for female inpatients at the VA to get makeovers at a nearby salon. But it’s more than a haircut. It’s a morale and self-esteem boost. “These women are stuck in these hospitals with all these guys. They have no money. Most are from the trauma program. They’re in a bad way. They come in here with some really serious issues,” says Catania, who served in the Army from 1974 to 1977. “This helps them focus on their program a little more. I know they feel hopeless because I’ve been there, and now it’s very rewarding for me to try and give back what was given to me. Being able to do something on the outside that helps them to start a new chapter on the inside is an honor.” The club also supports the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors and partners with other organizations to provide a large Christmas party for veterans in the psychiatric lockdown unit at the hospital. “One reason we’re able to do all this is because we have amazing women in our club. They have come up with these ideas, and I’m proud that our male Lions have jumped on board with their suggestions,” says Guess, whose wife, Tamera Guess, is club president and served in the Army as a Humvee mechanic during Desert Storm. “We are seeing more women coming in,” Guess says. “We need to let them know they have not been forgotten.” Chinn, 83, is a former mayor of Foster City. He is retired from his career as an architect, but not from his life as a Lion, and he keeps a list of Lions Veterans Charities’ 10 projects under way for this year. Chinn enlists the help of fellow Lions like Guess who shares his time with both the Peninsula Lions and as a trustee for Lions Veterans Charities. Another issue that veterans face is a lack of transportation. The San Francisco Veterans Lions club, a relatively new club formed in 2014, combines efforts with Rotary clubs and other organizations, the San Francisco police and Lions Veterans Charities to offer their Bikes4Vets program. Program chair Helen Wong says Lions recondition the abandoned or confiscated bicycles they receive from the police department and outfit them with new helmets, locks and lights before giving them to veterans in need. She expects to present 100 bikes to veterans this year. “The bike is their vehicle,” says Wong, a retired Army trained occupational therapist. “It allows them to get to doctor appointments, work, therapy, to see family and friends, to buy groceries.” Keeping all of these projects afloat would not happen without clubs supporting each other throughout District 4 C4, says Guess. “It was an ‘aha’ moment when we had our charter installation night,” he recalls. “Basically the whole district—Lions from all over the district—showed up, and they all stood up. We have gotten tremendous support from them, and from Lions Veterans Charities.” Past District Governor Roger Chinn, a 50-year member of the Foster City Lions, founded Lions Veterans Charities 17 years ago. A nonprofit network of clubs in District 4 C4, some that choose to support veteran projects and some that do not, it was begun after the Foster City Lions held their first fishing trip for patients in the Menlo Park VA hospital. The trip has since become an annual event, and the organization has grown to offer support to veterans and to the homeless throughout the Bay Area since then. Lions Veterans Charities provides meals and clean clothing to homeless veterans and civilians, hosts events at hospitals and clinics, supports the United Service Organization (USO) at the San Francisco International Airport and assists with Bikes4Vets as well as other activities. For three years now, Chinn has been working toward yet another project. He envisions transitional and permanent housing for veterans with no income. Although there is a county-wide push for more low-income housing in San Mateo County, Chinn points out that many veterans come home not just troubled, but unskilled and unable to find work. Some suffer PTSD or other issues that keep them from holding a job, and without a job, they cannot get into low-income housing. He wants to build housing with a developer and builder who will hire veterans and teach them the trades in the process so they can later be hired elsewhere. “It is a very difficult situation here,” says Chinn. “It’s as if we as a society don’t want to look at it. It’s not only disgraceful, but it’s a very sad commentary on what we as a country are doing or not doing to help our veterans. “I’ve been at this for 17 years,” says Chinn. “But there is plenty to be done here and I already have both feet in.”

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