PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The University of Maine at Presque Isle kicked off a new workshop this past Thursday that they hope will create an annual opportunity for organizations to better connect County veterans and their families with crucial services in their own backyard.
The “Serving Those Who Served” workshop hosted numerous presentations from community representatives about the economic and workforce development, educational, volunteer, health and social services available for the nearly 6,400 veterans living in Aroostook County.
Dr. Jacqui Lowman, UMPI associate professor of communication and journalism and one of the workshop organizers, noted that although the majority of veterans in northern Maine are age 65 or older, nearly 1,200 are between the ages of 35 and 64. Many of those younger veterans have families to care for, which increases the need for affordable medical care, housing, educational and social opportunities.
One of the primary goals of the workshop, Lowman said, was to directly reach out to people who work with veterans daily and connect them with other community partners.
“I hope people can see that when we help veterans we also help our community. Many of the younger veterans have children in the local school systems, have jobs, buy houses and contribute to the local economy,” Lowman said. “They’re a growing part of our communities and I think many might not realize just how many resources are available for them locally.”
The workshop originated this past spring in Lowman’s business communication course, in which she often connects students with community organizations to help with a real-world project.
Lowman’s colleague, Kim-Anne Perkins, formerly a professor of social work at UMPI, is a member of the Caribou-based United Veterans of Maine and proposed the idea of a workshop that would bring together community members and organization leaders who dedicate themselves to assisting veterans. Throughout the semester, Lowman’s students assisted in planning the workshop.
During one of the day’s first sessions, Emma Edgecomb, family assistance center specialist for the Caribou Armory of the Maine Military Family Assistance Center, spoke about the program’s case management and referral services for veterans and their families. The center has a 24/7 hotline that refers veterans to financial or legal assistance, mental health counseling, shelter or transportation services.
Edgecomb recalled the story of one veteran who greatly benefited from reaching out to the Family Assistance Center through the hotline. The veteran and his spouse were homeless but had been told that they didn’t qualify as “homeless” for state benefits because they had been living temporarily with a friend. The veteran also had a history of substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder.
“They called our hotline and we were able to find a shelter 45 minutes away from where they were that was willing to take both the veteran and their spouse,” Edgecomb said. “We found transportation that was able to bring them there the next morning.”
Reliable transportation is one of many challenges facing veteran advocacy organizations, especially when specialized medical treatment is needed outside The County, noted Gary Michaud, manager of the VA Clinic in Caribou. Michaud presented on providing care to veterans in a rural setting but also attended other workshop sessions in hopes of finding other related services he could share with veterans.
“I’ve been able to learn about a lot of programs that I didn’t even know existed,” said Michaud, who also is a member of United Veterans of Maine’s Farm of Hope program and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
Patty Blackstone, another member of Farm of Hope and an Air Force veteran, attended the workshop in hopes of bringing back valuable information to the veterans that she works with.
“I think today will become a good networking opportunity for everyone here,” she said.
Other presentations during the daylong workshop focused on behavioral health services through the Aroostook Mental Health Center, educational programs at UMPI and Loring Job Corps in Limestone, volunteer opportunities through the American Red Cross, and non-VA services such as heating assistance, family coaching and workforce development through the Aroostook County Action Program.
Later in the day, Lowman noted that the workshop was a success in making people aware of those services and that organizers hope to make the workshop an annual event.
“People in Aroostook County are so willing to come together to effect positive social change. They just need to know and have the opportunity to share their kindness and willingness to help others,” Lowman said.