CINCINNATI - Like many people, Gary Staten typically thought of the nonprofit group Easter Seals as mainly helping children and adults with disabilities and special needs.
But the Marine veteran is grateful that the organization's affiliates are carrying out a new initiative to create support networks for veterans, military service members, and their families through communitywide partnerships.
Staten credits staff at Cincinnati-based Easter Seals TriState - which serves areas in southwestern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana - for helping him find a job with FedEx just weeks after his recent military discharge and for his wife's temporary job. They also helped him get emergency assistance after the government shutdown delayed his military pay.
"I thought we would just be on our own," said Staten, 33, of Hebron, Ky., near Cincinnati. "But this organization showed that there are people out there who do care and want to help veterans and not just pass the buck.
Easter Seals has served service members and veterans since World War II, but the current initiative goes well beyond those efforts. Easter Seals affiliates are providing their own services and promoting cooperative efforts involving area organizations, employers and schools that serve veterans. They also are focusing on how to better use existing resources.
"We are committing all of Easter Seals to be a resource for veterans and their families nationwide," said Randall Rutta, the national Easter Seals' chief strategy officer.
Easter Seals is working with the Washington-based Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Community Services in setting up these communitywide efforts. Retired U.S. Army Col. David Sutherland, who heads the center, says an integrated approach will help avoid duplications or gaps in service that can result from groups working on their own.
The efforts in Cincinnati began with identifying the region's organizations serving veterans, inviting them to meetings starting in February and forming a steering committee of representatives from those groups, said David Dreith, executive vice president of the Easter Seals affiliate. The committee is working to identify the region's needs and which agencies can best meet those needs, either alone or in conjunction with others.
One hurdle to forming some of these community partnerships around the country is that many nonprofit agencies compete for the same funding.
"That's why it is important to keep the focus on the people we are all trying to serve," Dreith said.
Another important part of the initiative is a mechanism for referring veterans to the organizations that can best serve them.
Anthony Hassan, director of the Center of Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families at the University of Southern California, believes the Cincinnati-based model is one that other areas should follow.
"Cincinnati is a great example of small city, rural and suburban all coming together," Hassan said.
In Indianapolis, the Easter Seals Crossroads is developing a "rally point" - a one-stop physical site where veterans and family members can go to receive services, information and referral, said Bruce Schnaith, vice president of workforce development services.
Anysa Holder, a spokeswoman for Easter Seals New Jersey, says that organization is still developing its plan for the community-based approach but has already held some events to provide veterans with information on where they can go for assistance.
Hassan, whose center is leading a collaborative in Los Angeles, said there are similar efforts outside of Easter Seals, but he is not seeing enough across the country.
"If we are going to create a safety net for returning veterans, all of us are going to have to come together and create a network of support that is smart and efficient and one that can provide the service when it's needed," he said.