By Gordon Williams
Veteran’s Day is always a red-letter day for the American Red Cross. The humanitarian organization has had close ties to the military since battlefield nurse Clara Barton founded it in 1881. A major Red Cross function is Service to the Armed Forces (SAF), which provides assistance to members of the military, active and retired, and to their families.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Red Cross Northwest Region SAF team was hard at work this Veterans week, planning something special for the area’s military community. Those plans involve the region’s first virtual Heroes Cafe — the heroes being veterans who have served in one of the branches of the military.
Date for the event is December 9, says Jason Matheney, regional SAF Program Manager. Final details aren’t set yet, says Matheney, but it probably will make use of Zoom, the video conferencing service, and will run from 10 a.m. to noon.
The region’s first Heroes Cafe opened five years ago in Lynnwood WA, with veterans organizations in the area supporting the Cafe. Veterans could meet at the Cafe once a month for a meal, comradeship, educational programs and advice about everything from filing for veterans benefits to preparing tax forms.
The Red Cross provided volunteer workers for the Cafe, helped prepare the meals, and sponsored at least one monthly gathering a year. Matheney has described the Lynnwood Cafe as “A one-stop shop for providing assistance to veterans.” The Virtual Cafe will offer all that — without putting anyone’s health at risk.
View: Heroes Cafe photo album
Based on the success of the Lynnwood Cafe, there were plans to open more such facilities around the state. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, putting on hold plans to open physical locations while placing new burdens on veterans and their families. That, says Matheney, led to the idea for a Virtual Cafe. Veterans would still get the help they needed, without exposing themselves to the risks of a physical meeting.
Anyone in the Northwest Region (Washington and Northern Idaho) can take part. Information on how to take part will be available from the Red Cross shortly, says Matheney. While local veterans organizations were the driving force behind the Lynnwood Cafe, the new Virtual Cafe will be run by the Red Cross in partnership with myriad organizations that serve veterans.
“We will reach out to any organization that provides supportive services to veterans,” Matheney says. The list of such organizations invited to participate in the first Virtual Cafe includes the Disabled American Veterans, the Wounded Warriors Project, the King County Veterans Program, the Veterans Innovation Program of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs, the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program and many more.
The Red Cross wants to include as broad a range of partnering organizations as possible, simply because the issues veterans need help with can cover such a broad range of topics. Younger veterans may need help returning to civilian life. Older veterans may have health issues or may need help with retirement plans. Applying for veterans benefits can be time-consuming and taxing, and filling out the necessary forms can require expert guidance.
One reason for choosing to use Zoom, Matheney says, is because it allows participants to move into one-on-one virtual rooms. Veterans can also use the Cafe to schedule follow-up sessions with subject matter experts.
The Virtual Cafe is still in the planning stages, Matheney says. Among key members of his SAF team are Yaleidy Torres, Lauren Snow and James McLaughlin. Word about the Cafe will appear on the regional Red Cross website at https://www.redcross.org/local/washington.html and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. A flyer from SAF will go out when all the details have been wrapped up. “If you know a veteran, make sure they see the flyer,” Matheney says.
Matheney says the SAF team could use more volunteer assistance, especially in King County.