Lee County Veterans Outreach Program (From the semi-annual report overview written by Jamie Popwell)
In October 2018, the Lee County Commission approved and funded a position through the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service to provide a Veteran’s Outreach Agent Assistant here in Lee County. The premise behind the position was to service the needs of veterans in Lee County and assist other veterans in surrounding countries. Service includes help with employment opportunities, Liaison with both colleges to place veterans in touch with educational opportunities, address needs for homelessness and financial difficulties and help returning veterans re-adjust to everyday life after returning from overseas assignments. Additionally, the agent would be responsible for bringing awareness of veteran issues through meetings, speaking engagements and daily interaction with businesses and residents in Opelika, Auburn, Smiths Station, Beauregard and Loachapoka.
The position began on Dec. 4, 2018 but because of the Christmas holiday shutdown at (Auburn) University, work didn’t actually begin in earnest until Jan. 5.
I immediately set out to establish the presence of this new position by introducing myself to the two veteran service officers assigned to Lee County. After an initial meet-and-greet, I have had very little interaction with either of them. They aren’t interested in engaging with me in any way, and repeated emails and phone calls have been ignored.
I began working with the Auburn University Student Veterans Resource Center as well as the office of Workforce Development at Southern Union to establish a liaison and assist where I could. This led to an invitation to a Veterans Steering Committee chaired by Director Greg Leikvold. I hold a seat on this committee and have participated in numerous meetings centered on helping build East Alabama as a preferred area for veterans to relocate. In February, we held a job/hiring fair and workshop that attracted 18 veterans with interests in careers here locally on Southern Union’s Opelika Campus. There were two veterans I specifically assisted in finding jobs through this workshop. Jamal Jenkins and Jacqueline Smith are both success stories finding opportunities at a local restaurant chain. The steering committee meets monthly to brainstorm and build on the initial successes of the first workshop.
Also, in early February, I was asked to participate in the Veterans Court program in Lee County as a mentor for veterans who had been arrested and pled guilty to crimes but are given a second chance. The purpose of the mentor is to hold the veteran accountable and make sure he/she progresses through the program until graduation. I am currently mentoring two veterans in this program. It is a lengthy process and we meet twice a month at the Justice Center in Judge Hughes’ courtroom.
I was contacted by the daughter of a well-known local veteran about reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses he incurred in December that she was having difficulty getting answers at the Veterans Administration. I personally contacted the VA office in Montgomery to plead her case (with her permission) and after being denied, I engaged several local civic groups to help cover the costs, raising the entire amount and presented it to the family in April. For personal reasons, I’ve excluded his name but can furnish that if need be.
In February, I partnered with Jericho Wilson, a Financial Advisor for Ameriprise Financial Services to provide a workshop for first-time home buyers through the VA. While participation was small, we helped a young veteran understand the process for utilizing her VA home loan opportunity to purchase her first home. There will be follow up workshops at both Auburn University and Southern Union to capitalize on the student veteran base attending both universities in the fall.
In March, I was appointed to the Advisory Board of the Lee-Russell Council on Aging as a member representing the veterans in both counties. We meet quarterly and are due to meet this month. I was also asked to sit and participate in a Veterans Committee for the City of Auburn to help plan the Memorial Day activities.
On March 4, the day after the devastating tornado swept through the Beauregard and Smith Station communities, I assisted with relief efforts and assisted veteran families (Stensen family) secure financial assistance through other charitable organizations. Additionally, I provided labor to help with cleanup and distribution of food and supplies. I spent more than two weeks in both affected areas.
I have assisted families with funeral arrangements for military service (family of James P. Murphy Jr.) and because of this, I’ve established a liaison with local funeral homes to provide assistance with flag presentations and securing contact numbers for all casualty affairs officers for each branch of the military to provide burial assistance and military honors funerals for those who qualify.
I have assisted aging veterans with submitting appeals letters for rejections to claims for Agent Orange (Allen Beard) and offered advice and guidance to younger veterans from The War on Terror (David Cason) with filing claims on service-connected disabilities and requests for review on percentage disabled.
In the last six months, I have developed working relationships with several other non-profit organizations that specialize in job placement and resume building for veterans such as Still Serving Veterans. Through this particular company, I have assisted in placing four veterans in potential jobs here locally.
As a part of bringing awareness to veteran issues, I’ve been asked to speak at civic groups, churches, businesses, hospitals, events and local schools from kindergarten thru 12th grade.
To date, the numbers total 26 speaking engagements.