WASHINGTON, D.C. — Since Congress passed the CARES Act, which granted $17.2 billion to the Veteran Affairs office, the money has helped with telehealth and other medical resources, but some congressmen in California are concerned there should be more headed to veterans during the pandemic.
Joe McClain, who spent 30 years in the Navy, said he echos the congressmen's concerns for veterans, especially now. McClain is the CEO of Help Heal Veterans, a nonprofit that uses products to put together thousands of therapeutic craft kits.
“This really is a piece of small magic we make here in California designed from the ground up to help vets and active military with a wide variety of challenges,” McClain said.
These kits consist of materials that can help veterans with small projects — from woodwork to sewing, to art — all meant to be therapeutic. McClain assembles an average of 30,000 kits a month, but now, amid the pandemic, the demand has tripled for VA vets and doubled overall.
“To me, it speaks to the need and the desire for folks to reach out and help them deal with the situation they’re in right now,” McClain said.
He said he worries for the veterans who may be alone or can’t see their therapist, who may be suffering more from isolation and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is probably the most important time in [the] history of our organization that’s been around for 50 years that our impact, which has been great over those 50 years, is even more impactful because the stakes have never been higher,” McClain said.
With that in mind, McClain boosted production at the warehouse, but even working around the clock, can only meet the demand up to 70 percent, because there just aren’t enough donations.
“Right now we are limited on our resources coming in,” McClain said. “You know the craft kits and craft therapy sometimes people don’t understand how something can make such a big difference in someone’s life… And I got a thank you letter from a veteran that said 'Thank you for what you do with the kit.' This was a senior, older guy at home. 'I don’t think about suicide as much anymore.' And it goes to show something so small can make such a big difference.”
McClain said the pandemic is taking a toll on veterans especially those who suffer from PTSD, homelessness, or the lack of emotional support. Now some California lawmakers are trying to address these issues in Congress.
San Diego Rep. Scott Peters introduced a resolution to support the education and awareness of PTSD. Fullerton Democrat Gil Cisneros, who is also a veteran, introduced a bill to update clinical practices at the Veterans Affairs, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein and Los Angeles Rep. Ted Lieu introduced similar bills to expand VA funding and flexibility to help vets with food, clothes, and transportation.
“I think that’s great,” McClain said. “I think bringing awareness to these issues is important. Before America is healthy, they have to know the need. So anything that can raise awareness of the veteran issues of what they’re going through and make for a smarter class citizen is awesome.”
McClain said he can relate when he came home from the Navy ten years ago, it was a rough transition back into civilian life.
“My transition from the military, like a lot of folks out there, you’re part of one culture and now you have to join another. And that can be challenging at times and that can take a bit of time and a while. I was lucky I had some friends who transferred before me who [were] a bit of mentorship and I try to do that now,” McClain said.
McClain received love and support from his friends and family and now he said he wants to be that support to help other vets heal.
Help Heal Vets has a unique partnership with Southwest Airlines, where they use the recycled airline seats and turn them into crafts such as messenger bags and footballs. McClain said it’s unfortunate they have to prioritize veterans of traumatic experiences to give kits to because the demand is high and they're simply not getting enough donations. To help a veteran, visit healvets.org.