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Volunteering with Veterans, Military Service Members, and Their Families

July 22, 2014
Birte Keays

Birte Keays

Today’s guest post comes from Birte Keays who served as an officer in the German Army from 2002-2008 and got a first impression of what AmeriCorps can get done by working for the Literacy AmeriCorps program through the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County, Florida. She was inspired to serve again, and is currently an AmeriCorps VISTA CADCA VetCorps Prevention Coordinator at Serve DC – The Mayor’s Office on Volunteerism. Birte’s work focuses on Veterans, Military Service Members and their Families (VMF) in Washington, DC.

Having served myself and being married to a US Navy veteran, I have experienced the tough transition process from the military life to a civilian career, and even though we seem to have made it, I can relate to others who are having a hard time adjusting to the change. When you leave the military, it is not like just changing your career but changing your whole life. You come from a system that completely took care of you, starting with giving you strict guidelines about your work schedule and location, to setting expectations regarding your physical fitness, while providing you with healthcare. You are part of a unit, you go to places that others will never (want to) go to, and you have buddies you would die for, and they for you. And then it all stops.

Birte during a training exercise with the Army in 2003

Birte during a training exercise with the Army in 2003

There are some fantastic programs in place that ease the transition, but the newly gained freedom that comes with being on your own can be overwhelming and lonely.

One fantastic organization that I was introduced to thanks to fellow AmeriCorps VISTA member, Alley Smith, is Team RWB. Team RWB’s mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. By getting involved with Team RWB’s DC chapter, I have not just improved my physical fitness, but I have made many new friends in the short three months I’ve been here in DC. You do not have to be a veteran to join and will be welcomed with open arms. Check out the Team RWB website to find your local chapter or start one!

Birte now officially a Team RWB member, DC, 2014

Birte now officially a Team RWB member, DC, 2014

Another great opportunity to get involved is First Lady Michelle Obama’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Launched in June 2014, the initiative is a way for mayors across the country to solidify partnerships and secure commitments to end Veteran homelessness at the local level. Learn more about supporting veterans and others who are facing homelessness by getting involved with a project near you. The Mayors Challenge website has information for individuals, local governments, nonprofits and advocacy organizations, and businesses and corporate partners.

To find other national volunteer opportunities, check out the US Department of Veterans Affairs  to find a medical center or hospital. You could also get involved with Habitat for Humanity’s special Veterans Build initiative to provide housing solutions.

One of the projects that I am working on is to bridge the gap between veteran, military service members, and military family (VMF) service providers and the volunteers interested in supporting them that are already present in the same area. While there are a number of service providers in the area, all too often they are not aware of each other. Serve DC’s volunteer opportunity database, NeighborGood offers one way to find volunteer opportunities. Individuals can search by ward or quadrant for the opportunities closest to them, or search by host organization for your favorite veteran or military- focused group. I’m working to connect volunteers to organizations that need them like The DC Center for the LGBT Community where fellow AmeriCorps VISTA member Eric Perez is currently serving. He is collecting data on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans to determine what the biggest needs of that community are. Outside the District, Montgomery County in Maryland has built a wonderful network of VMF service providers and those individual organizations are always looking for volunteers. In addition to working to connect organizations in DC with each other, I am also focusing on outreach that lowers the barrier for veterans who might need help, but are too proud to ask.

Then Quartermaster 3rd Class Paul Keays, Birte’s husband (far right) helping to navigate the USS Harpers Ferry near the Philippines, 2005 (Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Brian P. Biller)

Then Quartermaster 3rd Class Paul Keays, Birte’s husband (far right) helping to navigate the USS Harpers Ferry near the Philippines, 2005 (Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Brian P. Biller)

My parents might have called me stubborn as a child, while I prefer resilient.  During my service, the military built on toughness and encouraged a team spirit, which often led us to look out for others first rather than ourselves. Asking for help is not something that I was able to do as a child and still struggle with today. Admitting weakness and helplessness is hard for everyone, and from my own experience, I think it can be even harder for veterans – myself included. While I do not agree with how veterans are now portrayed as dysfunctional after their service, I believe in a trust-centered environment where people build friendships through shared experiences like service projects. By volunteering with each other you can learn from and support each other without forcing help on someone who does not need any or is not able to accept it at that time. However, they will know that you are there if and when they need someone.

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