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Tucson VA worker receives top honor for virtual program aimed at isolated veterans

By CARMEN DUARTE | The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson | Published: April 5, 2021

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TUCSON, Ariz. (Tribune News Service) — Catherine Starr knows a companion to talk with regularly is vital for veterans who are lonely or socially isolated — especially during the pandemic.

The voluntary service specialist at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tucson began to expand a volunteer visitor program a year ago.

Since all in-home visits stopped because of COVID-19, Starr helped volunteers connect with veterans by phone and virtually through FaceTime, Facebook and Zoom. She founded the Compassionate Contact Corps to serve Southern Arizona.

Starr's efforts and those of nine other VA employees across the country were recognized for creating the Compassionate Contact Corps program in their area and were honored by the Department of Veterans Affairs with its ICARE award. ICARE stands for Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect and Excellence.

"It really is an honor to be recognized, and it was a loud shoutout to how impactful this program can be," said Starr. "I have the best job, and I work with individuals who are generous with their time and talents, and don't care about getting paid."

The Compassionate Contact Corps program is now at 80 VA medical centers. Starr and the other award recipients "worked hard and admirably to help other sites across the country successfully implement it," said Prince Taylor, the VA's deputy director at the Center for Development & Civic Engagement.

For veteran Ted Coleman, 79, and volunteer Tom Vida, 73, the program led to them contacting each other regularly by phone or through FaceTime starting last year.

Last week, the two met face-to-face outdoors in a spot overlooking the colorful flowery grounds at Oasis Assisted Living Center where Coleman lives. Smiles erupted on their faces as they greeted each other. Both men have received their COVID-19 vaccines.

The two used to see each other often before the pandemic in a program that took veterans on outings, including bowling, trips to the zoo and on picnics, said Vida.

Now, they hope to resume their visits in person and talk about their lives. Coleman, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, served in the Army Signal Corps from 1967 to 1972. After the service, he was in a car crash and suffered a traumatic brain injury that caused paralysis, and he also lost sight in one eye. He moved to Tucson years ago, and with the help of his father and physical therapy he learned to walk again.

Vida is a retired guidance counselor who worked for the Catalina Foothills district. He has volunteered in various programs at the VA Medical Center for 11 years. He and his wife lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, before moving to Tucson in 1998.

"Tom is my friend. I like talking to him. Our visits are a good morale booster. It is a break from the routine here, and he connects me to the outside world," said Coleman.

A favorite pastime for the two friends is talking about sports cars and the University of Arizona men's basketball games, including the championship in 1997; discussing golf tournaments that feature Phil Mickelson, Coleman's favorite golfer; and playing cards.

Coleman is among 50 veterans in Southern Arizona who are contacted by volunteers regularly by phone, emails, texts and virtually.

These veterans have served in World War II on up to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The youngest vet in the program is 30 years old, and the oldest is 99," said Starr. In addition to the Tucson area, volunteers are in contact with veterans in Safford, Dragoon and Arizona City. The veteran is referred to the program by medical staff or a social worker.

Starr said volunteers help keep an eye on the veterans they have befriended and get services that they need. They have helped veterans in need of groceries, or getting medical attention to those suffering bouts of depression.

One volunteer mentioned a veteran in need of a home health-care worker while she recovered from an injury, and a social worker got involved. And another mentioned a 98-year-old veteran who no longer could service his cooler and was assisted by a veterans organization.

"This program strikes a friendship between veterans and volunteers. It helps people connect to each other, and volunteers can offer guidance to veterans who may need assistance," said Starr. "The virtual portion of the program will continue because there will always be circumstances when in-home visits are not practical," she said.

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