I’m always surprised at how many people still believe the Department of Veterans Affairs alone can take care of all our veterans and their families. Certainly, the VA is the cornerstone of support for the veteran community, but VA Secretary Bob McDonald has admitted that the agency can’t do it alone. That leaves veteran support organizations to make up the difference.

The reality is these organizations are generally set up to support a single need, even though veterans’ families might have multiple needs to be met. In addition, much of the nonprofit support is dependent on the philanthropy of individuals and companies. With that uncertainty, we must be thinking in terms of organizing support that will endure for years to come and deliver it in an even more comprehensive fashion.

The solution is community

We have seen national programs come in to help military veteran families locally, and while these efforts deliver results in the short term, they tend to wane over time and, more often than not, only address specific subsets of need, while the person’s total needs aren’t resolved. In comparison, when efforts are rooted in the local community, veterans support programs have shown greater staying power and sustainability over the long haul, as the community’s resources and ability to solve people’s problems are more like a pattern than a puzzle.

That improved approach comes from building veteran assistance upon proven support organizations in those communities. In other words, there’s no need for new organizations but simply better orchestrating their efforts within the community.

Moreover, there is additional financial support for these efforts because organizations know that those resources will be used within those local communities. A good example is the support given by the Walmart Foundation toward veteran reintegration. The Foundation has given millions to organizations focused on helping ease the burden for veterans and their families reintegrating into civilian life. In fact, on Nov. 9 the Foundation announced a $5 million grant awarded to our organization, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), to aid in the expansion of the AmericaServes program, a model that offers veterans the tools needed for a smooth transition back to civilian life. Walmart and the Walmart Foundation have now awarded a total of $6 million in just three years to IVMF, with a majority of these resources directed back into communities where veterans live.

One model that’s working

With that investment in mind, and a conviction to change the way services are delivered to military-connected members, IVMF launched the AmericaServes initiative in 2013 to streamline and connect the services available in communities and create the nation’s first coordinated system of public, private and nonprofit organizations — a network — working together to serve veterans, transitioning servicemembers and their families. The best way to explain how it works is through the eyes of a recently transitioned veteran.

Jeff Cece is a disabled combat veteran who served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was impressed with the number of agencies and amount of guidance he received. Jeff did struggle at first, but emerged from conversations with AmericaServes partner agencies energized.

“Knowing I’m part of a network where the main focus is to help veterans in any way possible gives me so much hope,” says the former paratrooper. “I’ve met some great people and I was so overwhelmed, in a good way, when they reached out to me. I was offered help with job searches, with my claim, my resume, health and wellness … it’s amazing.”

Focus on community partners

The more engaged local community partners are and the more they coordinate access to their services, the better these veteran-serving collaboratives work and the more veterans get support. A key factor in success is engaging the community partners behind this collaboration so they’re actively supporting the veteran families and providing referrals to other support organizations when the needs exist.

Many funding organizations can bring more to the table than simple financial support. In addition to financially supporting community-based veteran services, Walmart is also bringing awareness to the needs of veterans through its Greenlight A Vet program, as well as funneling thousands of volunteer man-hours, training, and a wide array of employment opportunities to veterans and their families. Walmart joins many companies undertaking a variety of efforts to meet veterans’ needs.

Communities help each other

Perhaps one of the biggest epiphanies of this community-based support is the community-to-community level of support and engagement. In other words, when we mobilize a new community around veteran support, the most powerful and lasting way to jump-start that community is having another successful community working directly with their leaders. This allows for one to learn from the other and share what is working, a dynamic that shows the true potential of community as an integral role of supporting veterans. In some ways, we need to simply get out of the way and let the communities do their thing after delivering the resources and technical support.

Some real results

AmericasServes in Pittsburgh has served over 900 military families in its first year of existence. Similar results have been repeated in AmericaServes cities across the United States. While these early results are strong, there’s a sense that we are just scratching the surface on what we will be able to accomplish as more communities come on board and assist each other and this growing network a veteran support.

James D. McDonough Jr. is a retired colonel and managing director at Institute for Veterans and Military Families, where he oversees all its programs supporting the military and veteran community.

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