This past Friday, I had the opportunity to volunteer at StandDown Arizona! StandDown is a US Department of Veterans’ Affairs event, held in different cities across the US during the year. The event in Phoenix is the largest in the country, serving over 1300 homeless veterans in two days. These veterans– from what I saw– range from just over 18 all the way up to my Grandpa’s age, with different abilities, ranging from seriously disabled to someone just like me.
StandDown essentially connects veterans with food, clothing, housing, health, legal, benefits, counseling, and all sort of other services. For free! This year, the veterans started lining up at 1AM– despite pouring rain & even hail all night!– to be one of the first inside.
I volunteered as a Guest Guide, meaning I would be paired with veterans and assist them with securing the services most.
I arrived around 6:30AM for orientation & training, before being paired with my veteran, Alvin. Alvin is a 48-year old Navy (8 years) & Marine Corp (8 years) vet, who is living at US Vets, which is housing for homeless veterans here in Phoenix. Alvin is a former heroine addict, who was in prison for 3.5 years, before being released last April. While in prison, he began taking classes to become a substance abuse counselor. He is now just 15 credits shy of finishing his Associate Degree (he had a four-hour final that afternoon!), and hopes to finish his Bachelors in Social Work at ASU and then Master’s within the next four years. “I’m 48, going on 49, I don’t have any more time to waste!” he told me.
During our six productive hours together, we got Alvin’s drivers license unsuspended (working with attorneys & the DMV in AZ and Cali!), got him approved for food stamps, got his teeth checked out, got him new work boots & a giant bag of clothes, got him a new backpack, set him up with a good amount of hygiene products, got him set up for community service to clear his driving tickets, and finally coaxed him into drinking a Propel and enjoying two turkey sandwiches, with a moon pie for dessert! (I asked him roughly 20 times if he wanted a turkey sandwich so when he finally let me get him one….that was my biggest success!) What a day! We accomplished so much together, thanks to our “rule breaking.”
- Broken Rule #1– “You are not supposed to advocate on behalf of your veteran. You are there only as a friend.” Well you know what? Friends help friends! And I wasn’t going to stand there, just being dead weight. When the benefit providers at the Food Stamps section said he didn’t qualify & couldn’t see a counselor– despite a rep telling him he did earlier that week, due to his ADHD & full-time student status– you better bet the provider sure got an earful from me. And you better bet Alvin got the next seat with a counselor & food stamps an hour later.
- Broken Rule #2- “Do not leave your veteran.” With so much to accomplish & so little time– that four hour final was quickly approaching!– there was no way I was just going to wait idle for Alvin to finish meeting with providers. I used this time to head off to the next area & secure our place in line! This strategy saved us probably four hours of line waiting, allowing Alvin to accomplish more than he ever thought he could. It was highly regarded by the other vets. After Alvin joined me in the vets-only Clothing line, where I had been defiantly waiting for 45+ minutes as Guest Guides & StandDown personnel told me I was in the wrong area, he said I was “very popular” with all of the vets I was in line with, who told him he was “lucky” to have me as his Guide.
- Broken Rule #3- “Don’t stand on chairs.” Yeah, yeah, whatever. After bringing Alvin some hydration & food in one of the lines, another vet was jealous of the moon pie I had brought him for dessert. Two moon pie deliveries later for all of the vets within close earshot, I took it upon myself to grab a nearby folding chair to use as my podium: “Hey! Everybody! Listen up! I’ve got moon pies, water, Propel, sandwiches, cookies & other Hostess cake things! What do you want?! I’m taking orders!” I spent the next hour maneuvering my way across the Veteran’s Coliseum delivering goods to the line waiters. My small size made it very easy to squeeze between criss-crossed ribbons of caution tape & through the crowds, to get my hungry vets fed asap!
- Broken Rule #4- “Do not leave the Coliseum with your vet.” When I found out Alvin didn’t have a way home– his buddy wasn’t answering his phone– I was thisclose to giving him a ride home myself. However, I was also running late to my roadtrip, so instead I marched him on outside to the shuttle buses, found a vet who was a former cab driver, and hooked him up with the shuttle closest to his home. (I may or may not have also tried to bribe the shuttle bus driver to take a wrong turn so that he’d end up at US Vets, where Alvin lived.)
Overall, it was a super successful day! I had so much fun getting things accomplished with Alvin! I was determined to check off every one of the items that might help him out. I probably would have started crowd surfing or swung like Tarzan on a rope across the Coliseum, if it would have helped me help him faster.
The whole experience left me incredibly energized– just like every time I volunteer! (My boss always comments on this.) By the end of our time together, if Alvin had said he wanted a house & if tools & wood were handy, I would have gone to town building him an 8’x10′ structure. I’m not even kidding. I felt unstoppable. Nothing could get in the way of me helping Alvin and his peers at StandDown!
If I had been in town this weekend, I 100% would have volunteered on Saturday, too. I am definitely going to volunteer both days next year and I also have an email out to my StandDown Guest Guide coordinator to see how I could become more involved. Alvin accomplished more than many of the vets there and I think it was due to our strategic approach. I see so many simple ways that we could improve StandDown, and I’d like to see them become a reality so that even more vets leave on Cloud 9 like Alvin did. (I heard him talking excitedly on his phone to his buddy, raving about what a day he was having. He was literally speechless when his license became un-suspended!) Plus, multiple StandDown personnel asked me throughout the day– particularly after I made my folding chair podium– to “walkie talkie so-and-so.” Sadly, I had to keep informing them that I wasn’t actually in charge….I just took charge 🙂
After I left Alvin on his bus, I speeded off to do a quick hour of work, before heading off to see my all-time favorite veteran– Grandpa! Details to come 🙂