The White House Fellows recently had the great pleasure and honor of participating in the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Winterhaven Homeless Stand Down in Washington, DC. The Stand Down is an annual event in which over 60 federal, state, and community agencies provide a range of services to needy and homeless veterans. These include cholesterol checks, eye exams, employment counseling, clothing distribution, benefits claims assistance, PTSD and trauma screening, personal care items and meals. The Stand Down is part of the VA's goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015.
White House Fellows served in the kitchen and dining area, which for most veterans was the last stop of the day. Some Fellows greeted veterans upon their entry into the dining area and reviewed with each veteran his or her schedule, to ensure that each veteran had the opportunity to access all of the available resources. We served meals, including salads, vegetables, barbecue, desserts and beverages. Fellows also helped disabled veterans to their seats and carried veterans' meals and bags of supplies and clothing. Finally, we helped clean tables, so that no veteran would have to wait to be seated. With the other volunteers, we served over 500 veterans during the day.
Veterans shared with us their stories about their childhood experiences, their excitement about upcoming job interviews, their feelings of pride from serving their country and their gratitude to a country that has not forgotten them. Fellows ended the day discussing amongst ourselves how much we gained from -- rather than how much we gave during -- the day.
The following quotes capture some of the sentiments shared by White House Fellows who volunteered for this event.
Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine Corps Infantry Officer who is serving as a Fellow at the Small Business Administration, remarked, “Events like this are a reminder that the commitments we make to each other in war are only the beginning. Any day you get to honor those commitments is a good day."
Candice Jones, who is working at the Department of Education, said, “It was humbling to serve the men and women that have sacrificed so much for my freedom. It really helped me put things in perspective and reminded me that someone fought – and many are still fighting – for the liberties that I enjoy."
We left touched by veterans' stories, more aware of the issues that they face and grateful for their sacrifices.
Individuals and organizations who wish to participate in future Stand Downs can go to www.va.gov/homeless/events.asp for more information. They can also find other ways to join in the fight to eradicate veteran homelessness by visiting the Veterans Affairs Homelessness website or by calling 1-877-424-3838.
Major Archie Bates, US Army, is a White House Fellow in the Office of the First Lady.