Tuesday, November 30, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 39

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on November 19th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 38 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 38

In the middle of the pandemic, community leaders find creative ways to rally around those who served our country


For many, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about previously unexperienced struggles: Some people lost their jobs, used food banks, or applied for rent relief for the first time in their lives. 

But for those who are already familiar with these challenges, such as the veteran community, the pandemic only exacerbated the hardship. It’s well documented that veterans already experience higher rates of homelessness, joblessness, and mental health issues. 

“Then take that and realize how devastating it would be to be living in a pandemic world when you’re either homeless or you’re on the fringes,” Santa Barbara County 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino told the Sun

Goodwill Industries employees run a booth at a drive-through Veterans Day event. Goodwill’s veteran employment assistance program helps connect veterans with paid work experience, a service needed now more than ever.

Lavagnino is the prime mover behind the annual Veterans Stand Down event, which was canceled this year due to the public health crisis. The event connects homeless or near-homeless veterans with the community services they need.

The cancellation of events like Stand Down, Lavagnino said, “can be devastating for these people, especially people that have served our country. It really dials back a lot of the good work that we’ve done throughout the years.”

Furthermore, a recent study on people tested for the virus at the Department of Veterans Affairs national health care system shows that “older age, male sex, and comorbidities are associated with increased risk for death among U.S. veterans” who catch COVID-19.

With veterans being more at risk than ever, and in the wake of annual support events being canceled, Stand Down partnered with Santa Barbara County, the Santa Barbara Workforce Development Board, and Goodwill Industries of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties for a Veterans Day drive-through event on Nov. 11. The free event allowed veterans to come grab a gift bag full of items and information on community resources.

The Sun spoke with Lavagnino as he helped out at the event in Santa Maria, one of four locations. 

“I’m really excited about already planning next year’s Stand Down, trying to make it bigger and better, but today we’re just trying to do a thank-you here to our veterans,” he said. “We’re seeing a really good turnout with people that are driving through and doing it in a COVID-safe atmosphere.”

The gift bags included “toiletries, the Foodbank is providing fruits and vegetables, we’re handing out gift cards to different fast food restaurants around town, and most importantly we’re giving them a contact sheet with information for housing, mental health, and social services, so that in a moment of crisis they know who to call and where to go,” Lavagnino added.

In addition to some of the disproportionate financial and health challenges veterans might face during the pandemic, Lavagnino said that social isolation is also taking a toll.

“We have a lot of guys that show up at Stand Down that are 70-plus, and they’re just becoming more and more isolated because of the pandemic,” Lavagnino said. “That’s not good for people’s mental health. I’m seeing some of these folks coming through here in their cars, and they’re just so happy that someone’s paying attention to them and interacting with them and thanking them for their service.”

Osvaldo Sotelo, workforce programs manager at Goodwill Industries, manned a booth at the drive-through event. He said it was a great success, and told the Sun about some of the veterans services that Goodwill Industries offers.

“We have a veteran employment assistance program where we help veterans and veteran spouses who were honorably discharged from the services obtain a job, and we offer a paid work experience,” Sotelo said. “Talking to veterans and specifically those who need jobs, they were really amazed by such a program. Specifically, now that COVID hit, there were a lot of people who lost their jobs.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, when the program had to close its physical doors, Sotelo said it was a challenge to connect with veterans virtually, as many didn’t have a computer or internet access. But now, Goodwill has adapted to doing safe, CDC-compliant, one-on-one meetings to help veterans who can’t be reached online.

“We try to meet them where they’re at,” Sotelo said.

Steve Baird is a veteran and member of Band of Brothers, a group of veterans dedicated to supporting mental health in the veteran community. As Baird helped hand out resources at the drive-through event, he told the Sun about how similar events have impacted him.

“I have not missed one,” Baird said. “I used to be a recipient. I was a homeless veteran, so for me to go through all of this and then come out here and be a provider today, that’s what it’s all about.”

And while veterans may be facing increased challenges during the pandemic, Baird holds a positive outlook on how his community has prevailed.

“There’s a lot of us who have been in situations that require this type of attention. One of the things that we really employ in the military is: adapt, improvise, and overcome. So that’s just getting put into play here,” he said. 

Like any organization that revolves around social gathering, Band of Brothers had to adapt to the realities of the pandemic. But Baird said they’re making it work.

“The biggest shift that we’ve seen is that our whole Band of Brothers program is based upon recreational sports activities, so our leagues have obviously stopped or shut down, like bowling and softball and billiards,” Baird said. “So we’ve adjusted now, and we’re going to be doing some new sports like skydiving and ocean fishing.”

Baird also commended Santa Barbara County for spearheading a new 100 Day Challenge to Reduce Homelessness Among Veterans. The Santa Maria/Santa Barbara County Continuum of Care and local stakeholders like Baird are also involved with the initiative.

“We’re housing 75 homeless vets in the next hundred days,” he said. “That has brought just a cross-collaboration of everyone that is involved with these things, bringing everybody together. … We’re full speed ahead in this community when it comes to what’s going on with the veterans.”

And “veteran or not,” Baird said, everyone needs to lean on others to get through these tumultuous times. 

“Everyone should be reaching out to somebody that they haven’t talked to in a while,” Baird said. “You never know how much that’ll mean to someone.”

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@santamariasun.com.

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