Dr. Janet E. Kemp, VA National Suicide Prevention coordinator, discusses the role of volunteers during an American Legion Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission meeting at the Legion's 50th Annnual Washington Conference. James V. Carroll

Need for volunteering continues to grow

In 2009, The American Legion saw its volunteer hours at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities (http://www.volunteer.va.gov/) increase for the first time in several years. But the volunteer mission is by no means close to finishing.

During a panel discussion in Washington on Monday, representatives from VA and other groups that voluntarily serve veterans stressed that the need for Legion volunteers will continue to grow.

2010 Washington Conference

"I've been working with (veterans service organizations) for 30 years... and I know how important the Legion is. We can't do it without you," said Rick Gillette, Veterans Health Administration's VSO liaison/program assistant. "We're always looking to increase our volunteer hours with the people we work with. Hopefully we've turned the corner from the downward turn that we've had. A lot of that is going to have to do with the creativity of the VA medical centers and with you. If you have ideas where you think you can help... we want your input. We want any type of volunteer assignments you think you can utilize."

Janet Kemp, coordinator of VA's national suicide-prevention program, said that more than 40 Legion posts have gone through her program's suicide prevention training. "I would encourage all of you to continue that. (VA's) suicide-prevention coordinators across the country have been given the charge to do a total of five outreach activities a month, as opposed to the two or three they were doing. They're all looking for places to go and people to talk to, and we've told them that The American Legion posts... are their No. 1 priority. Please take advantage of that."

John White, vice president of business development and advocacy for Rebuilding Together, Inc., said his organization has a 2010 goal of completing more than 300 projects this year. "It's a very ambitious goal, but I think it's one we can reach," he said. "Come in and volunteer on projects. Spend a Saturday with us. You all have access to knowledge of the skill-trades professionals in your communities. They are always at a premium."

"I would love to see American Legion departments and posts assist Habitat for Humanity in building or supporting... veteran housing projects throughout the country," said Desiree Adaway, Habitat for Humanity International's senior director of volunteer mobilization. "We know that's happening with a handful of our affiliates, but (we want) to make sure that message is pushed around to every affiliate."

The Legion already has strong working relationships with Habitat for Humanity and Ride to Recovery. John Wordin, executive director of Ride to Recovery, wants to see that relationship continue to grow.

"For us, the main goal is to get more Legion posts involved in our program," he said. "Almost all of you have a VA or military (installation) nearby, and if we can get posts to pool together and help provide support at the local level, that's our big goal for the year."

Kemp relayed a story that serves as a testament to the power of volunteering. A person walked into a Midwest Legion post and more or less dropped several hints about committing suicide. Someone working at the post was familiar with VA's national suicide-prevention hotline and called the number with the veteran's name.

"The suicide-prevention coordinator then called the veteran, and yes, he was in trouble, but he did agree to come in," Kemp said. "Whether or not we saved a life that I day I don't know, but we definitely improved the quality of life for that veteran."