Archive for December, 2015

Berkshire Eagle : BRTA delivers tons of donated food, items for veterans at Soldier On

PITTSFIELD — Looking at several thousand pounds of locally donated food headed for regional Soldier On facilities on Wednesday, Jason Stump saw the future.

“That saffron tea will make excellent seasoning for chicken,” said Stump, head chef at the Pittsfield facility. “Cannellini beans are always a good addition to salads. Saltine crackers will be perfect for the crab cakes I make. I see all the ingredients for a good beef stew.”

Donated by Berkshires residents, the food had been collected — along with other items like clothing, toiletries, greeting cards, notebooks and much more — by Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and stored at BRTA’s headquarters on Downing Industrial Parkway.

Stump and roughly 10 veterans packed the food in boxes, loading the boxes into trucks, and driving the vehicles to the Soldier On apartment complex on West Housatonic Street. Within the next few days, some of it would be sent along to Soldier On’s Leeds facility to help veterans coming in off the streets.

“It’s keeping us busy on a nice day,” said Ben Hamilton, an Air Force veteran, as he packed boxes. “Last week, we went down to the Second Congregational Church and helped out making food at the food bank. We helped out the people of Pittsfield, gave back. This week, we’re being taken care of ourselves. And, believe me, a lot of people need some of this stuff.”

The drive was now in its fifth year as a benefit for Soldier On. Initially, it was organized to fund gifts to underprivileged children, but former BRTA Director Gary A. Shepard, now Soldier On’s president and CEO, converted the fundraiser to highlight another population in need.

In addition to the gift collection, BRTA donates two weeks’ worth of local bus revenue to the organization, which in 2015 amounted to 1,223 rides, or several thousand dollars.

“It’s a small price to pay,” said Tami Larimore, BRTA’s director of administration. “A lot of [veterans] come back broken. Some of us take for granted what we have every day — flushing toilets, hot showers, food in our cupboards, the blessings of a car to drive and a job to go to.”

She added, “A minority of us require medication to get through the day, not most of us. Few of us have serious physical ailments. This is a small way to say ‘thank you.’ We can’t make up for what you brought back with you, but we can show our appreciation.”

Shepard spoke about Soldier On’s national progress at BRTA — progress that has been helped along by numerous acts of charity like the one celebrated Wednesday.

He said 50,000 American veterans suffer homelessness in the United States — about 5,000 of them women — and another 1.4 million are living paycheck to paycheck and could lose housing anytime.

“We’re very proud of the partnership we have with BRTA,” Shepard said. “We recognize that one of the barriers for veterans getting supportive services and medical appointments they need, for employment, for education — for getting generally reintegrated into the community — is transportation. It’s a major barrier. A lot of our veterans do not have cars, and they need to get around. Working with BRTA is a real value-added component.”

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.



Soldier On Featured in MassLive

Soldier On opens new facility for homeless female veterans in Northampton

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Navy veteran Cynthia Stevens (Fred Contrada)

By Fred Contrada |
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on December 16, 2015 at 10:00 AM, updated December 16, 2015 at 10:04 AM

NORTHAMPTON – Cynthia Stevens sat and took a break while the workmen around her hauled sheetrock and the women examined the premises. Soldier On was in the process of opening its new transitional housing facility for homeless female veterans.

The new, 16-apartment complex on the VA’s Leeds campus was something most of them weren’t used to: a housing facility especially for women. May we add, for women veterans.

Half the 500 homeless shelters run by the VA don’t accept women at all, and few are specifically tailored to them. Many of the shelters that do take women lack separate quarters from the men.

Stevens, a Navy veterans, was moving out, not in. Many of the vacancies in the new facility were being filled by women living in renovated cottages at the VA. If this was a step up from that, Stevens apartment in Westfield was two. It will be a place her four grown children can visit. A place of her own.

Men's shelter under construction, as seen from the women's facility. Fred Contrada / The Republican

Men’s shelter under construction, as seen from the women’s facility.                                              Fred Contrada / The Republican

“I get along with all the women here,” she said. “We’re one big happy family.”

If you look out one of the windows you can see the construction underway on the 44 unit men’s facility up the hill. Although they’re close by, men are out of bounds on the women’s facility. Stevens is okay with this.

“There’s too much chaos if men are involved,” said Stevenes, who receives treatment for her PTSD.

The women’s shelteroffers a range of services and programs, from mental health therapy and treatment to counseling, educational programs and employment opportunities. All run by women and serve to support the veterans, many whom have been victimized by military sexual trauma.

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Sara Scoco, director of women’s programs.      Fred Contrada / The Republican

Sara Scoco, the director of the women’s programs, said the goal is to treat the body, mind and spirit together Women also work on substance abuse problems and self esteem. Among the programs offfered are yoga, writing groups and walking clubs. “Everything is run by women for women,” Scoco said. “A house care takes them to their appointments.”

John Downing, the CEO of Soldier On, the men’s homeless shelter at the VA, said the women’s facility cost $1.8 million to build, with much of the money coming from federal andstate sources.


Boston Globe: A fresh start for homeless women veterans in Northampton

NORTHAMPTON — Jane Geary struggled up two flights of stairs with full shopping bags and clothes hangers dangling from her overloaded fingers. It was moving day, a wonderful day, a day unlike any Geary had known.

The 55-year-old Navy veteran does not have a home of her own. But Tuesday, Geary and 11 other women embarked on a bright, promising chapter in their lives as they moved into a new residence for homeless women veterans.

“Crazy, crazy, crazy,” Geary said, shaking her head and breaking into a smile at the wonder of it.

She and the other women now have individual apartments in a bright, sparkling residence as part of a program run by Soldier On, a private nonprofit organization.

For these women, part of the wonder is that someone cares at all. Most suffered sexual abuse in the military, and Geary, a former nurse who once lived in Gardner, also deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I never felt like I fit in anywhere,” Geary said. “Here, it’s a different story.”

That story will unfold in a $1.7 million building of nearly 9,000 square feet that contains 16 individual apartments, four shared kitchens, plus space for activities as varied as group meetings, yoga, and artwork.

‘I never felt like I fit in anywhere. Here, it’s a different story.’
Jane Geary, talking about moving in to her Soldier On apartment

“This is a safe place to be. They make sure of that,” said Geary, who became homeless after her husband died and she struggled with drugs and alcohol. “They love you until you can love yourself, and that’s very new to me.”

It’s a place designed for women and run by women, where men can enter only by invitation. Soldier On is one of a limited number of residences for homeless women veterans in the state, but the three-story residence is the latest effort to meet a growing need as more women join the military.

Kathy Copeland, a 47-year-old Navy veteran, said she is still in disbelief over her new apartment. “When I look at it, I say to myself, ‘Wow, that’s for us.’ ”

Women made up 9 percent of homeless veterans this year, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. That percentage, encompassing more than 4,000 women, tracks closely with their representation in the armed forces, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

But women veterans, for reasons that are unclear, are slightly more likely to become homeless than their male counterparts, said Randy Brown, spokesman for the nonprofit coalition.

“Women come to us incredibly broken,” said Sara Scoco, the women’s program director for Soldier On.

When the women arrived at a previous Soldier On facility, some did not speak because of their trauma. Others cried for weeks.

“All of our women experienced trauma before the military — childhood abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse,” Scoco said. “Many of them went into the military to escape trauma and were re-traumatized instead.”

The program is located on the campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and parallels a Soldier On effort that serves 265 homeless male veterans here and in Pittsfield. The women’s services, however, carry a distinct imprint.

There are cooking classes, art instruction, and beadwork — all part of a holistic strategy to meet the mental, emotional, physical, and intellectual needs of a vulnerable, traumatized group.

“Many of these women don’t realize what their strengths are,” Scoco said.

Low self-esteem and nagging fear sapped much of that strength. But with mental-health counseling, volunteer work in the community, and opportunities for schooling and employment, those strengths are being rediscovered and nurtured, Scoco said.

“I’m learning what it’s like to not be a victim,” said LouAnn Hazelwood, a 60-year-old Army veteran who is the oldest woman in the program. The youngest is 26, and only one day of active-duty service is required for eligibility.

More than 1,500 women have been helped since the program began in 2005, said Jack Downing, chief executive officer of Soldier On. Per-diem payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs meet some of the program’s expenses; up to 30 percent of a resident’s income, if there is any, helps meet others. Donations and grants make up the rest.

When the program began, women were placed in the same building as men on the VA campus. Later, the women moved separately to two aging cottages that once housed doctors who worked at the hospital.

But now, set on a slope and surrounded by greenery, the women have a semi-secluded place of their own.

Downing said the new building has been designed to accommodate homeless women veterans with children. That’s an uncommon pairing, Downing said, because many women remain in abusive relationships to protect their children from homelessness.

No children are living at Soldier On now, but a flexible design will allow apartments to be reconfigured when needed, Downing said.

On Monday evening, Geary anxiously awaited the move-in the morning. Boxes had been packed, clothing had been sorted, and a promising chapter in a difficult journey lay only hours ahead.

But first there was a treat.

A women’s group had invited Geary and the other veterans to a country club for dinner and a dance, and Geary wanted to look special. For this, she donned a dress and a necklace.

“I don’t wear a dress too often,” Geary said, a small smile creasing her face. “And this is an opportunity to put one on.”

For Geary, the night out represented another small checkpoint on the road to stability. It’s a long journey, Geary acknowledged, but it’s one she wants to see through.

“There’s more that I need to work on, so that I don’t have to come back when I leave here,” she said. “I want to be a success.”
The $1.7 million building of nearly 9,000 square feet contains 16 individual apartments, four shared kitchens, plus space for activities as varied as group meetings, yoga, and artwork.

-By Globe Reporter Brian MacQuarrie


WWLP- Homeless Women Get a New Lease on Life


NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (WWLP) – A home for the holidays. Homeless women veterans living in Western Massachusetts got the help they need to heal from serious trauma.

“We should not have any veteran living on the street,” said homeless women veteran Kathy Copeland. But about 50,000 veterans do live on the street, each night. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 1.4 million veterans and their families are at risk of becoming homeless. It’s enough to make Copeland cry. “These are people signing a blank check up to, and including, our lives for this country. And then to come back and not have the assets available to us,” she said.

Tuesday, however, she was crying tears of joy. She was getting a new home and a new lease on life. Kathy and 11 other homeless women veterans had shared an old home on the campus of the Central Western Massachusetts Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The home was leased out by Soldier On, a veteran’s advocacy group. With the help of former homeless veterans, family and friends, they moved across campus Tuesday to a new home for 16 women, with much more to offer. The nearly 3.5 million dollar facility is fully funded by you, the taxpayer.

This facility and all its programs are run completely by women for women. There will soon be a yoga center, and next to it, an arts and crafts room. It’s all to help these women veterans recover and heal from the physical and emotional trauma they’ve experienced.

“Our women have really been traumatized in every way, shape and form. Over 80 percent of our women have experienced military sexual trauma and 100 percent were traumatized before they went into the military,” said Soldier On Women’s Program Director Sara Scoco. She said there’s a waiting list for Soldier On’s services, showing just how many homeless veterans are in need living in Western Massachusetts.

“We have a lot of work to do, miles to go before we sleep,” said Soldier On President and CEO Gary Shepard.

A permanent home isn’t just a roof and four walls: It’s also a place to feel safe emotionally and physically. That’s really what this new transitional home provides our veterans.

-By WWLP Reporter Kait Walsh

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