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A service for veterans

Challenges facing volunteer group hasn't changed commitment

A dozen retired veterans and those tied to veterans' needs started training this week en route to becoming the first veterans' service volunteer group in the state.

'There's nothing like this,' said Nancy Harwood, administrator for Columbia County's Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP.

Harwood said exploration of the concept started two years ago after having identified the service gap and naming veterans services as a top goal for the pursuit of grant dollars. Discussions among the RSVP Advisory Board members touched off last fall, gaining momentum following sustained reports about the challenges confronting the county's veterans' services.

Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller, who served on the RSVP board prior to his election into office in November, said shortly after taking office he was inundated with calls.

'The simple fact of the matter is [Columbia County's Veterans Services] has had cuts, it's had layoffs,' he said.

Grant funding for an assistant to help Joseph Pyle, the county's veterans service officer, dried up a year ago. Today, the wait-list for veterans seeking assistance with claims is four to six weeks out, Heimuller said.

A ballot initiative in November had proposed bolstering the veterans service office by infusing it with a five-year, 3.5-cent per $1,000 of assessed value property tax. Voters shot down the initiative which, in addition to providing additional staffing would have established an aid fund for veterans.

Heimuller and Harwood said the program has only evolved this far due to the pulling together of the community network. For instance, Heimuller said he appealed to members at the Elks Lodge, which has its own veterans service committee. Others reached out through the Moose organization and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

'If all the players hadn't been playing in the sandbox together, this wouldn't have happened,' he said.

The call went out for help. And the response, from a volunteerism perspective, was huge.

'The calls were coming in,' Harwood said. 'We had 10 volunteers in a matter of days.' In particular Harwood said the focus was on recruiting veterans and their spouses as volunteers.

Doug McEllven, a retired veterans service office from Washington County who lives in St. Helens, designed a training curriculum and job descriptions for the volunteers, who should be ready to start in July.

Volunteers will help with everything from setting appointments and processing claims paperwork to legal research.

The promise of success for RSVP's veterans service volunteers is tempered, to some degree, by pending cuts in the agency's budget.

The volunteer coordination service, which is largely funded at the federal level, will have $17,000 cut from its modest budget of only $86,000.

'It's huge. It's 20 percent of our budget,' she said.

Harwood said she does not anticipate the cut will damage RSVP's current volunteer programs, which include 600 volunteers at 150 stations throughout the county, Harwood said.