With the military draft through the Civil War and Vietnam War, the nation’s current generation of veterans are in greater need than ever, with the post-9/11 generation serving four to 12 tours in combat because they are all voluntary. When they return, these men and women who served our country are deserving of all they’re entitled to for putting their lives on the line to protect America’s freedom.
Groups and organizations in Ventura County are particularly dedicated to helping veterans locally and beyond, with efforts including holiday parties for military families, in which children receive new toys; an overnight event that offers services to veterans who are homeless; and free services that connect the county’s 50,000 military personnel, veterans and their families with federal and state veterans affairs benefits and local recourses.
Here’s a glimpse of a few of these efforts that serve veterans in Ventura County and beyond.
Ventura County Military Collaborative
Camarillo resident Omar Navarro, who served in the Navy for more than 15 years, had missed spending Christmas with his family more than a dozen times during his duty. But in 2016, his heart filled with joy as he saw his wife and teenage boys partake in Operation Snowflake, a holiday party for families of the military in which youngsters of active and veteran service members receive new, unwrapped toys.
As he watched his boys make their selections from thousands of toys, Navarro said, “It’s like too many feelings at once.” Being away from his family for so many years during the holidays, attending the event was “kind of like a culture shock where I’m back again . . . but it’s great because I can see how happy they are.”
Operation Snowflake, which helped hundreds of military and veteran children and their families in 2018, is a signature event put on by the Ventura County Military Collaborative (VCMilC), a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire, strengthen and support, as well as promote, the military and veteran community of Ventura County, through collaboration, programs and direct assistance.
“We are run by veterans for veterans and are the only holiday toy drive that distributes to Ventura County military and veterans,” said Kim Evans of Camarillo, founder of the VCMilC. “Our goal is to make sure any in-need military or veteran individual or family is given assistance during the holidays through Operation Snowflake.”
The VCMilC had its first meeting in November of 2011, with more than 20 hand-picked agencies that gathered at Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in Point Mugu. This meeting, which brought together the best agencies that Ventura County had to offer for military and veteran benefits and services, was inspired by Evans, the director of psychological health at the 146th Airlift Wing at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station, who worked with Col. Marilyn Rios, Vice Wing Commander of the 146th Air National Guard, Julie Morency, director of family programs at the 146th, and a team of 146th airmen. Agency criteria, determined by Evans, then became the guideline for the future of VCMilC, in which only vetted agencies that did “good work” with service members were asked to join.
In August of 2012, the VCMilC launched the Military and Veteran Expo, a free annual event that continues to grow every year, with more than 100 agencies showcased by 2015. This year’s expo will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Aug. 24 in Condor Hall at Oxnard College, 4000 S. Rose Ave. Event highlights include military- and veteran-related service providers, information on federal and state VA benefits, and the area’s largest veteran job fair, as well as food trucks on site. This event is being presented by Assembly member Jacqui Irwin of District 44 and the Veterans Collaborative of Ventura County operated by the Human Services Agency, Veteran Services Office.
This year’s Operation Snowflake will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 21. This annual event, designed to bring Christmas cheer to military and veteran families in need, will provide new, unwrapped toys, gift cards for groceries and gasoline, quilted stockings, veteran benefits and an afternoon with Santa Claus. This event is designed for any man or woman in active duty, the National Guard and reservists, and veterans and their families who may be struggling during the holiday season.
“We will include senior veterans this year for the first time as we have concentrated on families in the past,” said Evans, noting that ornaments will be available with small wish lists of items requested, and community members can shop for their adopted veteran, child or family and distribute the gifts at Operation Snowflake on Dec. 21. Unwrapped toys and gift cards can also be dropped off from Nov. 1 through Dec. 14, with locations listed at www.vcmilc.org/operation-snowflake.html.
Ventura County Stand Down
Larry Martinez, a homeless Navy veteran who hadn’t had an income for nearly two years at age 58, cried as he expressed his gratitude for the free teeth cleaning he received at the Ventura County Stand Down, where he also obtained free clothing, took a shower, ate free meals and received other medical care, including a visit with an optometrist.
When he was in active duty, he said he could have died, and “to be treated the way we are is horrible.” He dedicated his life to his country, he emphasized, and “my country didn’t give back to me.” But at the Ventura County Stand Down, he was treated with the utmost respect and received unconditional love, which for him, “means a lot.”
The Ventura County Stand Down, a two-night, three-day event, offers a range of services to veterans who are homeless, who are also welcome to bring their immediate family members. Veterans who are not homeless and active duty military are welcome to attend on Friday and/or Saturday to access the many free goods and services available, including meals and snacks, clothes, medical and dental care, and legal counseling. More than 50 outreach programs are also on site to help veterans, including the Ventura County Military Collaborative and Gold Coast Veterans Foundation. Live entertainment is provided on Friday and Saturday evenings, and homeless veterans can also spend the night.
This year’s 27th annual event will take place on July 26-28 at the California Army National Guard Armory, 1270 Arundell Ave. in Ventura. Veterans of all ages and military branches are welcome, including combat and non-combat, those who served regardless of where they live and all active military.
The event was founded by Claire Hope of Camarillo, who attended a similar event in San Diego in the late 1980s. When she saw the tremendous positive impact it had on the veterans in attendance, “I was just awed by it,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of the veterans living on streets, so that was an eye opener for me — these are our veterans, these are our heroes.”
In 1992, some of Ventura County’s top leaders gathered for a meeting at the Ventura County Veterans Service Office to discuss the feasibility of establishing a stand down in Ventura County. The results of the meeting were positive, and in just one year, the idea became a reality, with veterans from the counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles invited to participate.
In 1995, the homeless population in Ventura County was estimated to be between 2,000 and 4,000, and veterans within that population were estimated at 34-40 percent. While it is difficult to count the number of homeless and determine how many are veterans, Hope noted that techniques were implemented in following years to allow for better estimates. For instance, in 2014, out of 813 unsheltered adults, 176 were identified as veterans.
For the homeless veteran in Ventura County and elsewhere, life on the streets is debilitating at best, Hope said, with them suffering from lack of food and shelter, unemployment, physical and emotional disabilities. As a result, the homeless veteran often feels completely isolated from mainstream society and unable to break out of the self-perpetuating cycle of homelessness.
And for those who do seek assistance, many are unable to access the help they need because the services required are spread out over a wide geographic area. This means homeless veterans must exert undue time and energy going from one agency to another — and frustration often results.
“Imagine how the veteran feels knowing he has given so much for his country and yet finds himself scraping for food?” Hope said. By assisting veterans who are homeless, “we realize that sometimes it takes just one small service for them to break out of the cycle … such as needing a photo identification card, a bus token, a pair of shoes to start a new job, or not having any funds to pay for their fines that compounds into a bench warrant.”
By the end of the second day of the stand down, many veterans have already begun making a tremendous transformation in their appearance and mental outlook, Hope added. “The community spirit and sense of camaraderie . . . helps the homeless veteran immensely.”
County Veteran Services Office
Ventura County’s County Veteran Services Office (CVSO) is staffed by VA-accredited professionals providing free services that connect the county’s 50,000 military personnel, veterans and their families with federal and state veterans affairs benefits and local recourses. This includes monthly monetary benefits, assistance with burial and bereavement, education, employment, emergency financial needs, incarceration/legal, housing and homelessness, health care, mental health care, substance abuse and more.
The motto of the CVSO is “improving veteran’s lives” and to that aim, staff connected veterans to more than $10.5 million in one-time and annualized U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs disability compensation and pension benefits in fiscal year 2017/2018, said Mike McManus, CVSO officer and a retired U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt., who also directs the Veteran Collaborative of Ventura County.
“The estimated spending impact of those benefits is over $31.5 million,” said McManus, adding that the CVSO can’t reach all military personnel and veterans in the county by itself.
To assist with this, the CVSO operates the Veteran Collaborative of Ventura County (VCVC), comprised of community representatives from local, state and federal governments, businesses with federal or state Veteran Affairs contracts, nonprofit organizations, veteran service organizations and faith-based organizations that advocate for veterans and their families.
“The collaborative helps to coordinate and access services for military personnel, veterans and their families,” McManus said.
The VCVC’s members meet monthly to network, collaborate and coordinate information to provide comprehensive services that are responsive to the community’s needs. Additionally, the VCVC helps present the annual Military and Veteran Expo and Job Fair, which gathers veteran service providers, employers, and other community-based services to provide direct access and information for veterans and their families.
The VCVC also provides emergency financial assistance, which assesses needs and facilitates access to emergency financial funds available for veterans to address various emergency needs.
Gold Coast Veterans Foundation
Since 2015, the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation has been assisting more than 2,000 veterans annually, and within the last three years, two board members have provided housing for 45 homeless veterans using HUD-VASH, a collaborative program between HUD and VA that combines HUD housing vouchers with VA supportive services, which is “pretty impressive,” said Ronald J. Greenwood, co-founder of the foundation along with his wife, Lisa.
“Whenever a veteran walks in, we help them with their needs, and if we can’t help them, we direct them to those who can,” said Greenwood, a Purple Heart recipient who was wounded in Vietnam. “I don’t know of any organization assisting 8,000 veterans in the last four years.”
Greenwood, who started the nonprofit organization in 2006, was severely wounded in Vietnam, and looking back, believes he probably shouldn’t have survived. After serving in the U.S. Army, he used his GI benefits to earn a law degree and was in his 50s when he finally discovered all the benefits he was entitled to, which he learned sporadically.
His idea to launch Gold Coast occurred after he toured a veterans’ center in Los Alamitos. Although he was impressed, he noticed that the center was housed on base, which cut off access to men and women after they left the military.
In 2013, Gold Coast opened Veterans Connection in Camarillo, which serves as a one-stop shop to provide veterans in Ventura County and the surrounding area a single site to access numerous services, including medical and disability claims, restorative and wellness programs (including PTSD and psychological counseling), employment and job counseling and support for homeless veterans. The Veterans Connection — which consists of volunteers, donors and other local veteran service providers — collaborates with various government and nonprofit organizations, including the Ventura County Veterans Services Office, the California Department of Veterans Affairs and the Ventura County Veterans Court.
Above all, the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation is dedicated to “serving those who served us,” believing that making a difference starts with helping those close to home, and that the community must do its part to ensure the safety and well-being of the local veteran population and its families.
Greenwood and his wife served on the foundation’s board until January of 2019, and are now both retired, with Greenwood named Chair Emeritus. Now at the helm is Chairman Dennis Murphy, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, who “is a good guy,” Greenwood said, adding, “I feel confidence with him as the new chair.”
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.goldcoastveteransfoundation.org; or call 805-482-6550.