By Ron Leir
Kearny’s fledgling VOICE (Veterans Outreach Information Community Education) project – which aims to connect local active and retired military to services needed – is stretching its wings.
“We’re still in tweaking mode,” says organizer Maralyn Fisher, president of the American Legion Frobisher Post 99 Auxiliary. “Our website is still a work in progress. We’ve been putting up available resources on line as we go.”
But on Dec. 27, VOICE took a big step forward when it met with community leaders, including lawmakers, emergency first responders and Board of Health, to enlist them in one of its efforts: participation in a two-hour “gatekeeper training” online course to deal with veterans in crisis.
And, to field inquiries from veterans on medical issues, benefits, educational opportunities, family services, etc., VOICE has established regularly scheduled “office hours” at the Frobisher Post, 314 Belgrove Drive, between Bergen Ave. and Afton St.
Bill Sweeney, the post’s community outreach coordinator, is available Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Fisher and another post agent will staff the office on Tuesday evenings, from 6 to 8 p.m.
“Through the Legion we want to build capacity,” Fisher said. “We want to enhance our ability to find Kearny veterans and make sure they’re receiving the services they need. Our job will be to hook up veterans to resources that exist.”
Fisher said VOICE will also be reaching out to local clergy to get the word out to their congregants. “We should all be on the same page,” she said. “We also want to get on the Board of Education meeting agenda so [board members] can discuss whether they want their teachers to go for the gatekeeper training,” she said.
Police Chief John Dowie and Fire Chief Steven Dyl have endorsed the idea of having police officers and firefighters take the course.
Dowie said he’ll be assembling a list of cops “who I think will benefit by doing the training and I’m leaning toward picking veterans because they’d have a closer feel for what these men and women are going through.” About one out of every 10 Kearny cops has done military service in virtually “all branches of service,” the chief said.
It just makes sense for the police to participate, Dowie said, since “as first responders, our job is to mediate, determine what the crisis is, figure out which agency to refer the individual to for the long term. A lot of times, like in a domestic situation, it’s a cry for help, an opportunity to talk to someone.”
Fire Chief Steven Dyl, who has yet to work out how his employees will participate, estimated about 20% of his employees have military experience.
Another member of the VOICE team is post service officer Keith McMillan, just back from a third forward tour in Afghanistan as a member of the Army National Guard. He volunteered for the job because he “saw the opportunity to give back to the military.”
“I want to help in any way I can,” McMillan said. “Our goal is to help those not only those coming back from deployment reintegrate to civilian life, whether they’re active duty, Reserve or National Guard members, but also we have to take care of those who’ve been back here a while” by finding them the local, state and/or federal resources they require. “
And if we don’t have the answer, we’re going to find one,” McMillan said.
“We also want to encourage veterans to come forward to volunteer their assistance, too,” he said.
VOICE plans to schedule a fundraiser shortly to help defray operating costs, Fisher said. And the project core group figures to meet again sometime next month, possibly to coincide with the Mass being celebrated by St. Stephen’s Parish to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the death of the Rev. John Washington, one of the “Four Chaplains” who gave away their life vests after German subs torpedoed the Dorchester in the Atlantic during World War II.