Veteran Advocate Network to build connections for AC veterans' community

Leaders of the new advocacy push hope to strengthen the county's network of veterans services.

Veteran Advocate Network to build connections for AC veterans' community
Photo by sydney Rae / Unsplash

A new endeavor to better connect Adams County veterans to needed services moved forward this month with the hope of building a network of providers to address the particular needs of the veteran community.

Sixteen organization representatives attended the latest meeting of the Adams County Veteran Advocate Network, representing everything from housing support and mental health care needs to medical transportation and job placement.

“Even though we have only had two meetings so far … this group is off to a great start,” says Samantha Cossman, one of the network’s leaders. Cossman serves as a regional program coordinator for the PA Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

She explains the goal of the group is to "collaborate to address unmet needs of Adams County's veterans, service members and their families."

‘What Can We Do?’

The Adams County Veteran Advocate Network is the brainchild of three individuals whose work connects each of them in some way to serving the veteran community.

When Elizabeth Cooper began her tenure as the Disabled Veterans Outreach Program Specialist for PA CareerLink in Adams County, she immediately recognized the lack of opportunities for veterans to connect to services here, she says.

She reached out to two colleagues: Brady Rodgers with the Adams Economic Alliance, and Cossman.

“We were talking like, what can we do? Can we start a veterans network to be able to connect them to community resources that they might need? That's how it was founded,” Cooper explains.

Rodgers explains that Cooper and Cossman both had experiences outside Adams County “where other counties already had similar networks. …It really felt like maybe there was something that we were missing out on here in Adams.”

An integral partner in the initial development phase was Stan Clark and the Adams County Veterans Affairs Office. "They are the key advocate and starting point for all things veterans in Adams County," Cossman said. Sonny Freeman, the Veterans Service Officer for the office, has continued to be involved in the creation of the network.

Cossman adds that the network receives input from all three levels of government, at the county, state and federal levels.

Getting Started

As part of its initial analysis determining the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities already present in the county, the first priority for the group was to identify what service gaps exist in the county. In order to do so, the committee invited providers to the meeting to determine what services already exist in the county. It might sound counterintuitive, but it’s a strategic move.

“Until people know what resources exist and until people know what each [provider] does, you don't know what the service gaps are,” Cossman explains.

The network is looking to involve both veteran-centric providers and ‘mainstream’ providers – human and medical service providers that serve the community at-large – to build its coalition.

Rodgers imagines the Veteran Advocate Network as a tool “that is sort of like a support system amongst the social service providers.” If one provider has a particularly difficult case or problem it can’t solve on its own, the goal is it can reach out to the network to ask for help. “Then everybody pulls in and says, ‘hey, I have this resource that can help.’”

Tallying a Head Count

According to Rodgers, the workforce investment board SCPA Works reported the number of veterans in Adams County to be 7,792. But, Rodgers says, the number could actually be higher because “a lot of veterans don’t identify themselves as veterans.”

There are many reasons why a veteran wouldn’t want to self-identify as a veteran, Cooper explains. Sometimes female and older veterans can feel like “their service hasn’t been recognized” or feel “like they didn’t contribute,” she says. Another factor is deployment status.

Often the public associates the idea of ‘veteran’ with someone who has deployed or served in combat, but many veterans have served their country without ever leaving it. Cooper says she will have conversations with separated service members who think that because they didn’t deploy, their status doesn’t count as ‘veteran.’

She tells them, “well, that doesn't matter if you didn't deploy. You served four years’ active duty, honorably, you earned your veteran status.”

Amongst the veteran community, information sharing is informal and word-of-mouth, Cooper adds, herself a veteran. Thanks to her job requirements with PA CareerLink, she cultivates connections both within the veteran community and outside of it, and she hopes to utilize the word-of-mouth connections to bring more people, veterans and providers alike, to the network.

Identifying Needs

No two veterans require the same type or amount of help for the same list of needs, but there are broad categories the network currently identifies as meriting its focus.

One need that stands out is transportation services.

“Transportation and access to getting them to those services is a huge challenge here in Adams County,” Rodgers says. “Transportation is an issue everywhere in the state,” Cossman adds.

Many veterans have difficulty getting to healthcare appointments if they can’t drive or don’t have someone to drive them. Lack of transportation can be especially difficult for veterans who receive treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ centers; the closest are in Lebanon, Pa., or Martinsburg, W.Va., which can take up to an hour and a half driving time one-way.

A possible avenue for the network to help provide transportation for veterans could be to connect them with rabbittransit, a regional public transportation provider already located in Adams County, Cossman says.

rabbittransit offers free shuttles for veterans Monday through Friday to the York VA Clinic and the Lebanon VA Medical Center. It also has programs to help veterans take rabbittransit to attend job interviews and begin working.

Housing is another need that appears to be difficult to meet in Adams County at the moment. Rodgers acknowledges that finding or providing housing is a difficulty for “almost everyone” in public and community services. And he knows that it can uproot someone’s entire life if they have to move away to find sustainable housing.

“I know that from talking to [South Central Community Action Program] that there's been veterans that have had to go to Harrisburg to find housing. They had to leave Adams County because they didn't have a place to go here in Adams.”

For Cooper, whose job is to help veterans find and secure employment, an important need that can affect the outcome of every other need is a veteran’s mental health. With many of her cases, they look to target mental health needs first “before getting into that career workforce side.”

“I try to get them over those barriers to employment in order for them to succeed in a life-sustaining career,” she says. “And a lot of that has been mental health issues and mental health barriers.”

Moving Forward

Cossman, Cooper and Rodgers are excited about the network’s potential to grow into a future service for the county’s veterans, but they’re quick to point out they have a solid base from which to start.

“There are some really cool, incredible programs that exist in Adams County and there's just such great work. Adams County has some fantastic advocates,” Cossman says.

She sees the network as a continuation of that base. “If we're going to holistically affect a veteran's life for the positive, we all need to work together as one team to help our veterans and their families. There's no one group that can do it all.”

For more information about the Adams County Veterans Advocate Network or to inquire about volunteering, contact Cossman at [email protected]. For information on rabbittransit’s veterans’ transportation assistance, click here.