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Veterans land grant for caregivers

Tribune-Democrat - 1/5/2018

Jan. 05--A Johnstown-based nonprofit founded decades ago to support the region's veterans received a $50,000 grant to undertake a program supporting people who often struggle every day to do the same job inside service members' homes: provide personal care.

The funding will allow Veteran Community Initiatives Inc. to begin supporting those caregivers -- often spouses, parents or friends of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome or wartime injuries -- through Operation Family Caregiver, project partners said.

The Georgia-based Rosalynn Carter Institute launched an Operation Family Caregiver program in Johnstown five years ago with Conemaugh Health System and, working with other partners, has since brought it to 11 other communities across the nation.

Given that the main goal is to support the unsung heroes behind the nation's military heroes, it made perfect sense to have it controlled locally by a group that has spent years helping veterans and their families through difficult times, said Laura J. Bauer, Operation Family Caregiver's national program director.

"Taking this step, it's a no-brainer, because these struggling caregivers are hiding in plain sight, and groups like Veteran Community Initiatives know where to find them," Bauer said.

The announcement was made following VCI's 25th annual appreciation breakfast at Asiago's Tuscan Italian Restaurant.

The Johnstown-based, veteran-focused nonprofit, which has served the region for more than 25 years, expects to serve its 10,000th client in the Laurel Highlands in 2018.

But this will be the first time it will be focusing on a program solely dedicated to veterans' caregivers, Veteran Community Initiatives' Director Tom Caulfield said.

Still, Veteran Community Initiatives Community Relations Director Tina Pelesky expects the new undertaking will be a natural one for the company.

Veteran Community Initiatives has spent decades working with veterans to provide career counseling and job search training. In recent years, the group has overseen a peer-mentor program that matches military men and women whose behavior landed them in veterans court with fellow veterans trained to help them navigate the process, she said.

Those mentors work with vets to make sure they are showing up for court hearings and provide encouragement needed to ensure a misstep doesn't endanger their transition back to civilian life, Pelesky said.

Operation Family Caregiver is a vital extension to that work and can help veterans' loved ones, she said.

"A soldier might not come out and say they have post traumatic stress syndrome. They have other things going on in their lives. They have to get a job, many times. But their family knows them, and now, they can get help confidentially," Pelesky said.

Bauer said the challenges caregivers face can often be mighty ones. They can be reluctant to reach out for help or even realize they need it.

It can be a daily struggle trying to help a veteran who might be dealing with physical or mental anguish. A war-worn solider might be lashing out at home and then skipping Veterans Affairs Center medical appointments, despite a caregiver's well-intentioned efforts, she said.

"Those caregivers might be losing sleep, gaining weight and just struggling with trying to juggle every ball they have in the air at the same time," Bauer said, noting that the depression rate for military caregivers is 40 percent higher than the national average.

The program is offered at no cost to those it serves, she said. It works by assigning a caregiver to a trained "coach" who helps them set small, realistic goals they can tackle instead of trying to transform a loved one overnight. Through a problem-solving model, coaches work for up to six months with the caregivers to help them deal with issues before they reach crisis points, often by teaching them to react differently instead of raising their voice or trying the same approach.

"Sometimes you have to step back and focus on your own mental health before you can help your loved one," Bauer said. "That's what this is about."

Funding provided to Veteran Community Initiatives was awarded to keep the program going through 2018 and may serve as a launching point to help find ways to ensure it will continue in the years to come.

Sigrid Andrew, medical director for the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona, applauded the program and the objective behind it.

"I've been in (Veterans Affairs) for 20-some years, and we've often seen how veterans are being cared for by people who are close to them, and that it has a real effect on them," Andrew said. "We're excited to hear about this, because efforts like these are extremely important," she said.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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(c)2018 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.)

Visit The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.) at www.tribune-democrat.com

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