In 2012, more than 8,400 Legionnaires provided nearly 863,000 volunteer hours at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers nationwide. However, those numbers are down from previous years by up to 80,000 hours, even when American Legion departments, districts and posts have been challenged to raise the total number of volunteer hours to 1 million.
On Feb. 25, during a Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission volunteering panel discussion at The American Legion's annual Washington Conference, Laura Balun, director of voluntary service at VA, and Rachel Roberts with Habitat for Humanity International, shared areas of need for Legion volunteers.
"First and foremost, Legionnaires should check with their VA volunteer service (VAVS) representative and see what the needs are at their local VA," Balun said. "But there are two positions where we are seeing volunteers heavily needed: drivers and respite care. We have about 9,000 drivers that take patients to and from their appointments; it's a very important job, and we need more help. And with respite care, we are seeing how important that role is to go in and give a veteran's caregiver a break, and you, the volunteer, provide care to the veteran. By care I mean just having somebody in the same room, playing card games or watching TV.
"Also, the average age of a VA volunteer is 72. So I encourage Legionnaires to embrace student volunteers and teach them why you do what you do and how."
Habitat for Humanity's Repair Core program provides grants, donated by the Home Depot Foundation, to the 15,000 habitat affiliates nationwide who provide home improvements for wounded and aging veterans. These home improvements include building ramps and rails, widening doorways or modifying bathrooms.
"The Repair Core program has been in place for three years, but it has taken time to get the word out and many of our habitat affiliates are having trouble finding veterans to help," Robert said. "So where we need your help is getting referrals. We really need Legion posts to step up and refer us to a veteran who can use this grant."
The VA&R Commission panel has also found that volunteer success will be defined by having Legion reps and deps in each VA facility. To start, VA&R Commission members in each department must ensure the reps and deps positions in VA facilities are filled, and that they attend VA's volunteer quarterly meetings. Information gathered from the meetings, such as opportunities to volunteer, should be communicated to the department, district and post leadership.
"If Legionnaires don't know the volunteer opportunities at a VA facility, they are not going to come out and volunteer," said Jacob Gadd, deputy director of health for the Legion's VA&R Division. "It's going to take awareness, communication, training and everyone's support to achieve the 1 million volunteer hours mark."
For example, the Department of New York is currently working with 13 VA facilities, has deps in each facility, and even appointed a VAVS chairman. The deps are required to coordinate with the VAVS chairman on a monthly basis, and then the chairman gives a report during New York's mid-winter and convention conferences on their volunteer efforts.
"This area (American Legion VAVS program) is slipping a great deal in The American Legion, and it used to be one of the strong holds of the Legion that posts all over were helping the veterans in VA hospitals," said Ralph Bozella, Department of Colorado VA&R Commission chairman. "We need Legionnaire support to help bring this program back to an active level."