Mission Possible At Veterans United

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF VETERANS UNITED FOUNDATION

How do you know when a company is serious about giving back to the community?

How about if more than 90 percent of its employees pledge earnings to charity?

That’s the bar Veterans United Home Loans employees have cleared with their giving: An astounding 92 percent of Veterans United employees have pledged 1 percent of their earnings to Veterans United Foundation, the company’s philanthropic division.

“The response from our employees — while we kind of expected it — really hit home with us that the support and excitement around our own foundation is great,” says Megan Sievers, the foundation’s director.

Since November 2011, pledges have totaled $6.2 million. Veterans United Foundation has touched more than 16,000 people nationwide and has worked with more than 130 organizations, including 40 local groups. Nearly 40 percent of all dollars contributed have gone to mid-Missouri.

“One of our main company values is Enhance Lives,” Sievers says. “It is within our culture that we serve those who served and we take care of our local community.”

Employees give automatically through payroll deductions, and Veterans United matches their contributions dollar-to-dollar.

“That is how we are fueled,” Sievers says. “We don’t solicit outside funding because we want to retain that employee ownership and excitement; it keeps that momentum alive.”

The stories of local partnerships show the good a company can do when the employees are willing to “get their boots on” and serve.

Operation Playground
At 4 o’clock on a warm, sunshiny afternoon in February, the kids at Columbia’s Boys & Girls Club rush onto their new playground. Some collect on a picnic table, some throw a football, some spin themselves silly on a whirling contraption, some are sliding, some are swinging.

Everywhere, children are smiling. Late afternoon is a good time to be a kid, when there’s a safe place like this to be one.

Nicolle Walker, operations director, is smiling, supervising the fun from the sidewalk.

“The cool thing about our playground is the kids have somewhere to play,” she says. “We have structured activities, but if all else fails, you can always take the kids out to play on the playground.”

The Boys & Girls Club of The Columbia Area, which gives children a positive place to be every weekday from 3 to 8 p.m., began raising funds for its new youth development center at the end of 2011. The club remodeled and expanded its former Teen Center, located next to Hickman High School, from a 3,000-square-foot house into the new 9,000-square-foot facility, which opened in September 2012 to house all of the club’s programs, aimed at those in kindergarten to 12th grade.

After hearing about the construction, the Veterans United Foundation approached the Boys & Girls Club and asked what it could do to help.

“At that point, we had not budgeted any money for a playground,” says Valorie Livingston, the club’s executive director, “so they [Veterans United], sponsored the playground.

Foundation Director Megan Sievers says the company chose to get involved because the Boys & Girls Club provides significant contributions to the community.

“Val, the staff and all the volunteers are so dedicated to providing the youth a safe place to learn and grow,” Sievers says. “After learning more about the need for a fun playground at the newly renovated facility, we couldn’t wait to pull together and do our part to give back.”

Veterans United Foundation donated $29,000 to cover 100 percent of the playground build; about 100 Veterans United employees volunteered to put the purchased equipment together.

The chosen day for the build was April 7, 2012. It turned out to be a chilly, rainy day just miserable for outside work.

Livingston was sure the volunteers would cancel.

“I was like, this is not going to happen. There’s no way this is going to happen. How are they going to pour that concrete in the rain?” she says.

But shift after shift of Veterans United volunteers showed up, ready to work.

“Nobody was complaining,” Livingston says. “They were saying: ‘It’s OK. We’ll get it done; we’ll get it done.’ ”

Liz Behrens, an account manager for Veterans United Home Loans, was one of the volunteers. Just a month into her time at Veterans United, she was excited to do a service project with her new co- workers, and she remained so despite the mud, rain and wind.

“It didn’t matter to me how gross the weather was,” Behrens says. “We were doing something for a good cause, and when the weather was nice again, the children would have a great playground to spend their afternoons. I think my favorite part was painting the picnic tables! The bright colors really made the playground festive.”

It took the volunteers just eight hours to transform what had been a mud pit into a playground with a foot of mulch, five picnic tables and three pieces of equipment for sliding, spinning, balancing, climbing and swinging.

Sievers saw the whole day as somewhat metaphorical.

“Many of the kids who find serenity and comfort through the Boys & Girls Club have to overcome many obstacles in life,” she says. “The staff and volunteers guide the kids through the hardships faced at home or at school. They teach them to overcome hurdles and push through. The drive of these kids and the commitment of those who lead Boys & Girls Club are the reason we wanted to complete the playground in the timeframe we promised, rain or shine.”

“On the street,” he says, “without a doubt.”

Welcome Home is a little different. David Sheely, a 50-year-old Army veteran, is a typical Welcome Home client in that he knows exactly where he would have been.

Operation Heroes’ Welcome
Many nonprofit organizations have clients who say they don’t know where they would’ve been without the organization’s help.

Welcome Home is a shelter serving homeless veterans and their families with emergency food, clothing and shelter — either at Welcome Home or local hotels when the shelter is full. Welcome Home is also a place where homeless veterans can get help obtaining VA benefits, receive support while overcoming addictions and develop life skills, so they can re-enter society as productive, self-supporting citizens. To receive services, veterans must earn either less than 30 percent of the area’s median income or less than 50 percent if they meet other target criteria such as homeless, disabled, combat status and age (older than 50).

“So we only accept the neediest of the neediest,” says executive director Aneisa Sherrill-Mattox.

Veterans United Foundation connected with Welcome Home in November 2011.

“As a company, we focus on helping veterans find a place to call home, but for some of our veterans, it just isn’t that easy,” says foundation director Megan Sievers. “They need extra love, extra support and a hand up.”

Sheely was one of those veterans in 2012 when his marriage of 19 years suddenly ended. He had no money and nowhere to go, but he’d heard about Welcome Home from a friend who had stayed at the shelter. Today, Sheely thanks God that Welcome Home was there.

“They brought me in, helped me get set up with the VA, helped me replace my medicines, helped me get my disability for my hearing,” he says.

Sheely stayed for six months. He got his health issues straightened out, got his driver’s license back, acquired a car and learned how to manage a budget.

Learn more atwww.welcomehomelessveterans.org.

He had expected to leave Welcome Home through the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, or HUD-VASH, but he ended up befriending fellow Welcome Home resident William Steinmeyer, a 59-year-old Army veteran, and the two of them now share an apartment to stretch their incomes.

Steinmeyer is also grateful for Welcome Home. He came to the shelter from Doolittle, Mo., so he could be close to the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital for a few weeks of medical treatments. He found at Welcome Home the environment he needed to get better, on several fronts.

“It’s not like a clinical setting,” he explains. “It’s more of a homey place, and I think that helps the mind in some way.”

Veterans United also wanted to reach out with a personal touch to the local heroes. In 2011 and 2012, the foundation sponsored the Welcome Home Christmas party. Veterans United volunteers showed up both years with a moving truck filled with around $5,000 in gifts for the residents, including food, household goods, clothing and bicycles.

And along with the gifts, Veterans United Foundation made surprise donations to Welcome Home: $10,000 in 2011 and $20,000 in 2012, accounting for 50 percent and 69 percent of annual private donations, respectively. Even though Veterans United had brought a check in 2011, Sherrill-Mattox didn’t know if there’d be a donation in 2012 — and she certainly wasn’t expecting the donation to be doubled.

“Her display of emotion was so sincere and heartwarming,” says Veterans United employee John Ruppert, a volunteer who helped decorate for the party and was there to hand out gifts. “You couldn’t stop from getting a little misty-eyed yourself.”

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to have go home at night and worry about where I’m going to put a family in an emergency,’ ” Sherrill-Mattox says.

That’s a worry Veterans United employees never want Welcome Home staff to have.

“Veterans United Foundation is committed to Welcome Home’s mission,” Sievers says. “We won’t be satisfied until we’ve ended homelessness among veterans in Columbia.”

Operation Voice For The Voiceless
Miranda Chapin, a Veterans United employee, was catching up with her aunt one day when her aunt asked if Chapin had ever heard of CASA. She hadn’t, so her aunt began sharing how wonderful and important the organization was for vulnerable children.

CASA, Chapin learned, is all about giving children in foster care an adult who will stick with them until their cases end, whether through reunification with their parents or adoption. The acronym stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate and CASA volunteers — whose ranks Chapin’s aunt had joined — receive training on how to determine the children’s best interests and then how to stand up for those interests in court.

“I was surprised I’d never heard of it because it’s something that’s so important,” Chapin says.

Whenever Veterans United employees hear about nonprofits with missions that excite them, they can bring the nonprofit to the attention of the Veterans United Foundation staff. Chapin is actually a part of that staff; she serves as outreach coordinator for the foundation, which means it’s her job to make sure the foundation has nonprofits to consider. While she’s free to share nonprofits she finds, she spends most of her time researching other employees’ suggestions. Nine out of 10 donations the foundation makes originate from an employee’s suggestion.

“It’s quite literally the employees’ foundation,” Chapin says. “All of the credit goes to them. Of course, there’s the staff that pushes their requests through, but without the employees’ donations and their suggestions on what we should support, nothing would ever happen.”

Excited by her aunt’s passion for CASA, Chapin called the local chapter, Heart of Missouri CASA, and talked with program director Kelly Hill to learn how CASA meets its mission. Hill explained that CASA volunteers get to know their assigned children by talking with various people in the children’s lives, including parents, relatives, foster parents, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys, social workers and, most importantly, the children themselves. The volunteers visit the children twice a month and see the children in different settings, interacting with different people, including their parents. Drawing from their conversations and observations, CASA volunteers form an independent evaluation of what the children need and what would be the best permanent home for them.

Along with providing a report to the judges, CASA volunteers also provide children with one consistent adult ally; this, Hill explains, is a crucial role. Because of high turnover among caseworkers and the shuffling that happens between foster homes, the CASA volunteer is often the only adult with a steady presence in the children’s lives.

Beverly Fries is a Heart of Missouri CASA volunteer who has offered that stability to children. She served on one case involving four children, ranging from preschool to high school, who came into the state’s care when the mother was incarcerated. When Fries met the children, they were living with a relative.

After several months, the mother was released, and as is almost always the case, the state began working toward reunification. Fries was there to see how the children responded to the whole process.

“There was a time when a teacher mentioned to me that one of the kids had been coming to school very upset every day,” Fries says. Fries then met with the foster mother to figure out what the child needed.

“It’s just a wonderful thing to have one person in the child’s life who is consistent and who has the time to involve themselves in this way,” Fries adds. “That can be a very important role for CASA because caseworkers and guardian ad litems (the attorneys assigned to represent the child) might not have time to do that.”

While caseworkers and guardian ad litems must handle numerous cases, CASA volunteers take on just one or two at a time. To make sure volunteers receive support, the national CASA organization requires each local CASA to have one full-time staff person for every 30 active volunteers. That means to grow and offer more children advocates, Heart of Missouri CASA must have funding to cover the salaries of new employees.

After learning about CASA from Chapin, the Veterans United Foundation committee decided every child who needs representation should have it — and donated $10,000 to CASA for salaries and volunteer training costs.

For Chapin, it’s just one more example of how the foundation is making the most of employees’ willingness to give.

“That’s really the best part,” she says. “By all of us donating to the foundation, we can do so much more than we ever could as individuals.”

 

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