Paul Baffico: On the heels of serving in Vietnam, and reflecting on the life-after-war I have enjoyed, I realized I wanted to give back to the Veteran community for my good fortune. Inspired by what I saw other people doing for Vets, It has become my life’s purpose.
LFLBC: What types of programs do you provide to Veterans and their families?
PB: Our motto is: ‘We connect Veterans and their family members with each other and the benefits and resources that they earned and deserve.’ We help them regardless of the era they served, the branch they served in and their discharge status. And we define family differently than most government regulations would. We’re inclusive not exclusive.
Over the past five years, we have worked to build a network of partners that help us deliver our services. Services include, but are not limited to, weekly Coffee Klatches that bring Veterans together in five different locations around the county; we provide help for depression, help for deployment issues, both individual and family, PTSD help, grief help, housing, MST [military sexual trauma], TBI [traumatic brain injury], homelessness, financial crisis and counseling, substance abuse, legal, educational benefits, employment, holiday packages, community speaker series, community storytelling, and military 101 training for first responders like clergy, educators and law enforcement. So, anybody who walks in with any problem and has military service…we’re going to help them. Whatever the problem is. Free and confidential.
LFLBC: How has the foundation grown over the years?
PB: It started [in 2011] as a federal grant from the department of Health and Human Services that was awarded to the Lake County Health Department who ran it until 2015. I was the chairman of the governing council. In 2012, the grant was cut by 53%. So, there was essentially no money to support an ongoing program. Consequently, I started a 501c3 non-profit, funded completely by private donations, to run parallel and to expand grant progress. October 2015 was the official end of funding for the original grant, and this Foundation became a completely free-standing non-profit charity free from governmental constraint. We opened with the DryHootch Drop-In Center. We started very small as a grant. We had 20 to 30 cases a year that were very limited in scope because of federal policy compliance. Which means [Vets] had to qualify for VA benefits to qualify for help from the grant. What the American public doesn’t realize is there are many, many service members who are not entitled to benefits At our Foundation, they don’t have to qualify for anything.
LFLBC: How do Vets find you?
PB: Most find us in person at DryHootch or online. We have a website and social media--Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. We publish a newsletter every month. We have a very, very strong community outreach program…one of the elements of that program is Cup-A-Joe. And we have the well-equipped and welcoming coffee shop. Our services are supported by over 60 providers in Lake County that we have personally Vetted who make referrals to us. We had less than 500 contacts in our first year. Last year, we had 18,263. We now should be a little careful that we don’t overpromote and get more than we can handle. Right now, we have 36 active cases with 136 completed for 2018. Our model is to teach Vets to resolve their own issues; we give them agency to resolve and we guide them to the appropriate resources so the individual takes control of their own well-being. We have five professionally trained peer support specialists (who are all combat Veterans) who listen, connect and guide, all based on trust.
LFLBC: Tell me about the impact you’ve had on Veteran’s lives.
PB: Here are a couple examples…
We had a 72-year-old Vietnam Vet who had been a very successful executive. After he retired, he experienced PTSD. He didn’t want to go to the VA, didn’t want any help. We talked to him over a period over 4 to 6 months and we got him help from the VA. He did not want any disability money, but he received the help he needed.
Another example…a Gulf 1 Vet [who was a truck driver], was driving an 18-wheeler in Wisconsin and he totaled his truck in an accident. To avoid [crashing into] a mother and her two kids, he ran his truck into the guardrail. He called us and said, ‘I’m stuck here. What can you do to help me?’ We rented him a car to get his stuff out of the truck. And we rented him another car so he could drive himself and his three-legged dog back to Mississippi, so he could get back to work.
One more… We got word that a Marine was dying and he had fallen in love with a little dog when he was getting treatment in North Carolina. The man was down to this last 4 or 5 months. All he wanted was to be with this dog. We sent the Peer Support Specialist to North Carolina to get the dog and take it to Kansas City to be with him in his last days. It turned out both the Peer and the client had served in the same Marine unit 50 years apart: one in Vietnam, the other in Afghanistan.
These are things a government agency is not going to do. So, we provide a safe welcoming model for Veterans who, very honestly, are relatively uncomfortable in the civilian world for the rest of their lives.
LFLBC: How can the community help your initiatives.
PB: Well, [in order to keep serving Veterans] we could use financial assistance from members of the community. We constantly solicit for donations in various ways.
LFLBC: What community events do you have coming up?
PB: We have lots of events. The biggest one is our Ruck March in September. It’s a 22-kilometer march…22 is symbolic of the number of Veteran suicides per day. Participants put 22 pounds in the ruck sack to symbolize the weight of carrying the death of a comrade. It helps raise awareness of Veteran suicides. People can sign up to participate, donate, form a team. Also, we’ll be volunteer help at the Lake Bluff Antique Car show in June. We’ll be in the Lake Bluff 4th of July parade. …we’ll be taking donations at both of those. We believe in a strong community presence, because we can’t do this without the community. It’s not just money…it’s the moral and spiritual support that the community provides.