US Air Force vet Shannon Barradas spent a recent afternoon painting the intricate details of a mixed-media piece she calls, "Rebirth." Barradas, who served in Operation Desert Storm, has been going to art therapy at the Veterans Outreach Center on South Avenue for about a year, and is preparing her own art show.
"I've been in three different VA systems, and the best services are here," she says. "But most veterans are not really aware of that."
While the Rochester-Finger Lakes region has numerous programs and services available to veterans, such as the center's art therapy program, finding them isn't easy.
"That's the horrible thing," says Army vet Chuck Butera, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. "It's basically up to the veteran to find out what services and benefits are available. Maybe most of us would not be as bad off as we are if we knew about these services when we first came home."
Todd Baxter, executive director of the Veterans Outreach Center, is trying to fix that. The Army veteran and former Greece police chief says that while the region is rich with nonprofits, colleges, businesses, VA hospitals, and community organizations that offer support to veterans, that navigating that maze is an exhausting and frustrating exercise.
Baxter says that the system doesn't always provide the best opportunities for vets or their families, and that it doesn't make great economic sense, either.
"A veteran comes back and is confused," he says. "The world they knew has changed. If they have any kind of stress in their life or any kind of difficulty, sometimes they just give up. They'll say, 'I don't know where to go, much less have the ability to fill out 20 pages of paperwork only to have it lost a couple of times.'"
Baxter has proposed an $8-million plan to convert the Veterans Outreach Center into a regional office over the next five years to serve the nine-county Rochester-Finger Lakes area. It would build on the center's reputation as a "one-stop shop" for helping veterans with wellness and job-training programs.
Data sharing with all of the surrounding agencies is a critical element of Baxter's plan, which he says would reduce redundancy and eliminate a lot of the frustration that vets experience.
Vets walking in the door would be assigned a case manager who would become a single point-person to assess their needs and to help guide them to the right services.
"That case manager would become the vet's best friend," Baxter says.
Education, employment, and housing are also key components of the proposal, he says. Preparing veterans for employment, improving their current employment status, and getting them into their own homes are among the most challenging hurdles for many veterans, Baxter says. Success in those areas is essential to providing family stability, he says.
And they are factors that influence the entire region, too, he says.
"In five years we want to be able to say what we've done in a measurable way to move these veterans up the ladder of life," Baxter says. "If we're moving 5,000 vets upward, what does that do for reducing poverty? We're improving the lives of vets, but we're improving the economy, too."
The proposal is the result of the work of the Veterans Task Force, a subgroup of Governor Andrew Cuomo's Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. Cuomo asked the council to make sure that veterans are an integral part of the group's redevelopment strategies by assessing the services in the area and how to improve them.
Baxter says that there are about 48,000 veterans in Monroe County, and about 80,000 total in the nine-county region. With that size population comes countless social and economic issues: poverty, homelessness, high unemployment, addictions, and a wide range of medical and mental-health problems — even suicides.
As a member of the task force, Baxter says that discovering the level of expertise available in almost every county was an eye-opening experience.
"I'm interviewing the veterans [service] coordinator in Yates County and he's telling me that he works all the time with veterans' elder abuse cases," Baxter says. "I was a cop and I know elder abuse, but I would never have known that this guy is an expert we can call on."
Baxter says that while he wasn't aware of all of the services available to veterans in the other agencies, those agencies are just as likely to be unaware that his office offers programs such as art therapy.
"There truly is this sea of goodwill out there, but there's no efficiency to it," he says. "We're all just trying to do the right thing, but we need to coordinate better."
Baxter says that he understands that his proposal may be rejected by the Finger Lakes council. If that happens, he says that will continue to work on the same goals, but scale them back to what his office and others can achieve.
Another concern is making sure that the various agencies don't feel threatened and retreat to their silos to protect their individual funding streams, Baxter says. The proposal is not about taking anything away from all the different agencies, he says, but making them a stronger and cohesive force.
"If we filled in gaps and eliminated barriers, we would be so much more effective, particularly at getting people into the workforce," Baxter says.