VA Heart of Texas Health Care Network
Vets helping Vets
This man works at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System’s Waco Campus in the Post Traumatic Stress Care Team (PCT) Outpatient Clinic. This man treats Veterans ranging from 89 years young to those in their twenties just returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation New Dawn (OIF/OEF/OND)—all suffering from PTSD.
He wanted to “start to make a difference,” he said, to keep Veterans from “falling through the cracks” because of mental and emotional issues. In 2001, he and another employee who is a Program Support Assistant for the Waco PCT, saw the need to give extra help to Veterans, so they started an organization that has become known as "Vets Helping Vets, Inc." (VHV). VHV took Veterans who had been in the program the longest and started training them in peer-led activities to help Veterans access treatment faster and have a Veteran available to talk to, someone with a similar background.
His first goal was to start helping Veterans get where they needed to go on the Waco VA campuses by finding other Veterans to escort them, providing a personal touch to alleviate their anxieties. “We wanted to provide a personal touch to show them someone really cares about them,” he said.
VHV now has about 35 active members at the VA hospital in Waco and clinics in Mexia, Corsicana and Fairfield “finding Veterans who need to talk,” he said. Once the volunteers have built a rapport with a Veteran, they try to get him or her to join them. “Veterans were in the armed services to begin with to protect the country and its people, and when they’re doing this job, they go into that protection mode again. We facilitate that process to grow,” he said.
One important project they worked on involved VHV volunteers raising money for the family of a double-amputee Army Veteran of the Iraqi conflict. The money raised enabled the Veteran’s family to go to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, to be at his side and support him through his recuperation.
“When our staff runs out of options to help a Vet, we often can step in and fill the gap,” he said. “These services range from assistance as simple as helping fill out paperwork, giving directions and taking Veterans to appointments to repairing wheelchairs.”
Projects of Vets Helping Vets (VHV):
- Computer lab: Teaches veteran basic computer skills, how to write resumes, etc.; VHV bought the computers, pays for the internet.
- Collection of school supplies for area under privileged children
- Sponsors food drives for local food banks
- Provides and repairs wheelchairs for Veterans not only at the Waco VA Campus but throughout Central Texas Veterans Health Care System
- Traveled to several Central Texas reserve unit of veteran who have been deployed and briefed them about PTSD
- Collect monies and stuffed animals for the Angel Trees Project to support the State of Texas Child Protective Agency. Their donations help make sure the abused and forgotten children have a Christmas.
In 2009, VHV approached Central Texas Veterans Health Care System (CTVHCS) about using the Waco greenhouse. The greenhouse was sitting idle and being used for storage and falling apart. VHV, under the direction of our “Can One Man Make A Difference,” submitted a proposal to use the greenhouse and outlining how they could help VA as well as provide some therapeutic value for the patients and staff. A partnership between VHV and CTVHCS ensued, and for the next year, monthly meetings were held to develop policies and procedures for the operation of the greenhouse. On May 4, 2010, the policies and procedures were approved by the CTVHCS Director, Thomas Smith.
Once the greenhouse operations were approved, VHV quickly went to work, completely renovating the greenhouse, removing everything from the both buildings, cleaning the walls and floors, power washing the buildings, sanitizing with bleach solution three times to get rid of the twelve years of dust and mold, and then painting all the walls. VHV volunteers even repaired leaking water pipes, built shelves, purchased rolling carts, and their own electrician installed heaters then had VA electricians inspect the work before they were turned on.
During the next year VHV submitted more plans to improve the area around the greenhouse. The plans were approved by the Design team prior to implementing. VHV put in a much needed parking lot, constructed an arbor and deck, raised flower beds, constructed four compost bins, and put in a garden. They even raised money for a golf cart and trailer to support the greenhouse and obtained a donated refrigerator to keep water for the Veterans participating in the program.
Starting this year, VHV scheduled gardening classes and taught skills to inpatients and University High School autism students. The gardening classes allow Veterans who are inpatients to spend therapeutic time in the greenhouse. Inpatients are escorted by VA staff when they participate in greenhouse activities.
VHV has donated flowers for the main flower beds, for specific buildings when dignitaries visited the Waco Campus, for several areas to “spruce up” certain patient care areas, specifically in the Outpatient Clinic in Building 4 to brighten up the areas for patients waiting for their appointments.
The greenhouse gives each and every volunteer a purpose in life—from those Veterans suffering from PTSD to the Autism students. They receive hands-on skills for gardening, but more importantly, their self esteem is boosted and they have something to look forward to. The students may return this school year. Each and every project of Vets Helping Vets has been sponsored by Vets Helping Vets. Since the establishment of this program, over 10,000 volunteers hours has been served at the Waco greenhouse.
As this story is written, the greenhouse program has become a great collaboration; CTVHCS provides the building utilities, and VHV raises the funds to buy seeds, plants, fertilizer, pots, and all the other needs to support this great program. Together, they work for the good of the Veteran. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “To care for him who has borne the battle….”
It’s time to introduce you to Thomas J. Hughes, the founder of Vets Helping Vets, who is a Veteran and an employee of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System serving his country and VA faithfully for 39 years – 35 of those years with the Waco VA Medical Center and four years with the U.S. Air Force. This fact alone is a testimony to his commitment and dedication to serving Veterans and this great nation, not to mention all his work with VHV. “I’ve been an outpatient PTSD therapist since 1988 when the program came to Waco.” Tom said, “When I’m in the greenhouse, I sometimes get to talk to new Vets one-one-one and sometimes it makes it easier for the Vet to talk about their experiences in the greenhouse away from a clinical setting.” And that’s what Vets Helping Vets is all about; making a difference by helping one Veteran at a time.
Now, I think you will agree, one man can make a difference, and Tom Hughes is truly one man who has made a difference for Veterans at the Waco VA Medical Center, in Central Texas, and even farther since Vets Helping Vets has no boundaries. For more information about Vets Helping Vets, visit their website at www.Vhv-vetshelpingvets.com
The Greenhouse is open to Veterans, employees and the public on every Thursday from 8:30 to Noon and every Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to purchase plants. All proceeds go back to the Vets Helping Vets greenhouse therapy program.