Volunteers at the center helped Acquista deal with the Veterans Administration and navigating the process of going through the VA’s doctors to get set up with a psychologist who could, in turn, get him set up with a psychiatrist so he could get treatment for the PTSD.
The guidance from the center in Lawrenceville is assistance that Acquista said was greatly appreciated.
“It’s tremendous,” he said. “They’ll help you get whatever you need as far as help. They’ll get you started going in the right direction.”
The Veteran and Family Services Center is a partnership between the county and Disabled American Veterans Chapter 90. The DAV chapter has provided resource assistance to veterans for years in space provided through the county but for a long time it was in a small suite at the Lawrenceville tag office.
It was not until last year that the county and the DAV established the Veteran and Family Services Center, with more space, at the OneStop4Help facility located at 567 Swanson Drive in Lawrenceville.
“It used to be on top of the Tag Center and we felt that area was just (too) confined and it just wasn’t enough room for the veterans to just relax,” said Gwinnett County Commissioner Jasper Watkins, who is a veteran himself and has made services to the county’s veterans a top priority.
“With this center, as you can see, they have a little courtyard out front that they can sit and have lunch, we have necessary facilities with water and everyday conveniences so it allows the veteran to come in and decompress and be able to talk with representatives from the (DAV).”
The center and Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson hosted the first-ever Stand Down event for veterans and their families earlier this month to highlight the center’s services and to let veterans know the center exists.
U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath and her staff attended the event, which also had booths from U.S. Jon Ossoff’s office, GNR Public Health, the VA, Viewpoint Health, Gwinnett County Police, the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office, Gwinnett Fire and Emergency Services, Goodr and Hope Atlanta among others.
Veterans and their families were able to get information on various services as well as tour the center, talk to DAV officials, receive COVID-19 vaccinations, undergo health screenings and get bags of free food during the event.
“Ahead of Veterans Day, we really wanted to step up and do something for veterans,” Hendrickson said. “We are a Purple Heart county, we host the annual Veterans Day ceremony every year and we do a number of initiatives but we never really focus on providing resources for our veterans who are experiencing homelessness and chronic issues and really allowing them to come to an event where they can get access to a number of different services at one location.
“So, this really is a way to support our veterans and let them know Gwinnett County is here for them and we support them.”
Gwinnett County Department of Community Services Deputy Director Regina Miller said the county decided to expand its veterans resource offerings last year to not only help the veterans, but also their families.
Placing the Veteran and Family Services Center in the OneStop4 Help facility in Lawrenceville allows veterans to also take advantage of other county-coordinated services at the same location as the center.
“What we were hearing was that many families were also requiring services,” Miller said. “Our mission has always been that our veterans give so much, and because they give so much, it only makes sense that we give back to them, so in October 2022 is when the county opened up the Veteran and Family Services Center.”
Gwinnett County employs several veterans, although Miller said its been difficult to quantify just how many veterans now work for the county.
A large number of them are serving in the county’s public safety ranks. The police department and Sheriff’s Office in particular go to military installations and recruit men and women preparing to leave active duty and return to civilian life.
So, in that regard, the Veteran and Family Resource Center is a service that also helps county employees who may not be able to get the help they need within their respective departments.
“Veterans in law enforcement present a special challenge,” Sheriff Keybo Taylor said. “Their needs are special, and even though the county does a fantastic job at providing services for veterans and everybody (else), but sometimes there may be some special needs that we just might now have the resources and knowhow to provide those resources.
“So, I applaud (county leaders) for taking this step and bringing more awareness to it. Anytime you bring more awareness to a situation, you bring more resources.”
Visibility has been one of the center’s biggest challenges, according to DAV Chapter 90 Sr. Vice Commander Nelson Mitchell. Although Watkins estimated the center worked with at least 500 veterans in the last year, Mitchell said the actual number was at least twice that figure.
Mitchell and Chapter 90 Commander Karen King said they could be helping many more veterans, however, if those people knew the center was available to them. There are nearly 40,000 veterans living in Gwinnett, according to county officials.
“We have a lot of veterans in Gwinnett County and a lot of homeless veterans in Gwinnett County,” Mitchell said. “We try to be there for both sides, and now that Commissioner Watkins has gotten us this place, this has become a center for those are looking for help.
“The biggest problem is that people don’t know where we are and people don’t know that we are (an option).”
There are several needs for veterans in Gwinnett County, according to King. Some of those are the types of assistance Acquista got with navigating the VA process to get help with PTSD and filling out paperwork, as well as help filing claims.
But they also help homeless veterans get into housing and get other assistance through partnerships with nonprofits in the area.
Needs for housing and financial assistance for veterans are just as prominent as needs for help with filing paperwork among people who come to the center for help.
“Because people don’t know to get those services, they end up on the street,” King said.
As more veterans find out about the center, however, they find that they like having it as a resource. If nothing else, it’s assistance that is in their backyard so they don’t have to travel to Atlanta.
Loganville residents Joyce Harvin and Carolyn Ross, both retired Army veterans, said that is a major plus. The county’s Stand Down event on Nov. 4 was their first time visiting the center and learning about what it offers veterans.
“A lot of vets, they don’t want to travel downtown to Atlanta, or Decatur rather, for services, and there’s just so much in that big (VA) building,” Harvin said. “Here, it’s (homey), it’s confined so it’s more personal. It’s like a personal experience for them.”
Ross, who served in Iraq, added, “Every veteran needs some place locally where they can go ... versus having to go to the VA.”
And, the county’s center is expected to keep growing.
Gwinnett County has taken over a former Ingles grocery store in Lawrenceville with plans to use it for various services. Watkins and Hendrickson said one of those services would be helping veterans with more space for assistance.
“Plans are still developing on that,” Hendrickson said. “As we continue to grow and build out, we’re always going to be looking for ways to expand our service delivery model. Right now, because we’re still in the infancy stages, it works where it is right now, but the old Ingles is going to serve as our OneStop Gwinnett, which is going to have a host of services in addition to veteran care.”
Credit: Gwinnett Daily Post
Credit: Gwinnett Daily Post
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