Area veterans will soon have a new place to play ping-pong, darts, and video games, while also polishing their résumés, creating art, receiving free counseling or any of the other number of programs available at the new Heart of Texas Veterans One Stop.

One Stop moved from a 5,000-square-foot space on Austin Avenue to about 9,000 square feet at 2010 La Salle Ave. and is holding a grand reopening Friday to celebrate the growing service for area veterans.

The public is invited to the new location from 1 to 5 p.m. Friday, where there will be food, entertainment, games and prizes. Guest speakers include U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan; state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury; and state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco. The keynote speaker at the event will be U.S. Army veteran Kevin Zimmerman, a two-time recipient of the Soldier’s Medal and author of “A Time for Everything: The Kevin Zimmerman Story.”

Veterans Services Officer Steve Hernandez said the Heart of Texas Region MHMR spent $350,000 to buy the facility to allow programs, services and benefits for area veterans to continue to grow and expand. The Veterans One Stop had been on Austin Avenue since January 2013 and was bursting at the seams there, he said.

Hernandez said the January hire of DeLisa Russell as Veterans One Stop director will help stabilize and advance the One Stop’s programs and services.

Russell said even with the grand reopening this week, One Stop still has plans for future programs and development at the new site.

“I can’t believe that we actually have volunteers that are here 40 hours a week. There’s nothing like this in the nation,” she said. “It’s definitely a collaborative effort. It’s unique not just in Texas, but in the nation, because we have combined private, local, state and federal resources in one location. We are truly one stop.

“The result is very powerful. When a person comes into the One Stop, if we can’t meet their needs, whatever it might be, then what we do is we partner with the other agencies, but we let them know that the service member is coming. I like to say that if we do do a handoff, we don’t let go until somebody else has their other hand.”

Russell said One Stop helped 2,600 veterans last quarter alone.

“There’s still people telling me every day, ‘I didn’t even know this was here,’ ” she said. “People are always saying, ‘I wish my son or daughter would have known about this.’ ”

Russell said one of the biggest challenges is simply spreading the word to veterans across the agency’s six-county region that One Stop is available and has a multitude of free services, including mental health care, rental assistance, help finding a job, peer-to-peer support, anger management, individual and group therapy, and legal advice.

Hernandez said the center is for more than just the veterans, but their families as well. He guessed the center has only reached about 15 percent of all veterans in the service area.

Hernandez said he hopes the expanded programs and roles at the new facility help reach others to take advantages of the services at One Stop.

Multiple partner agencies have offices in the new center, including the Vietnam Veterans of America, Blue Star Mothers and Gold Star Mothers, for those whose children served and didn’t come home. There’s also a computer lab where volunteers can help veterans work on their résumés or apply for jobs.

“A lot of times, veterans have all of these things they can do, but they don’t know how to translate that into a civilian résumé,” she said.

Near the computer lab sits a mostly empty room for which Russell has hopes.

“If our dream comes true, we’ll get a donor that will get us a kitchen,” she said. “What we’d like to be able to do is feed the veterans, so we’re hoping maybe people come in and see what we’re doing and help us with that goal of getting an industrial kitchen.”

Russell said she also hopes someone with the right expertise will help build a garden in the back alley.

“We have a lot of wounded warriors who want to come and work on a vegetable garden,” she said. “We want picnic tables and everything back here, maybe put even a play area for our younger vets who come in with their children.”

A new addition to the Veterans One Stop is its art room and another room dedicated to addressing spiritual needs.

Russell said counseling won’t work if a veteran is hungry, and said they can’t be sent to job interviews without the proper attire. With that in mind, the new location also includes a food pantry and clothing donation site.

She said One Stop is expanding to become more than just a place to receive services or assistance, but a location to enjoy the camaraderie of fellow service men and women. There’s a game room with a pool table, darts and foosball, and a media room to watch movies or play video games.

“This isn’t just a place for someone to come when they’re in need, but we want them to feel like this is a place that they can come and be surrounded by other veterans,” Russell said. “When you’re part of the veteran family, which I am — I’m a veteran spouse, my husband was 24 years military — you get to be a part of that family.

“And I think what happens is — we lose 22 people a day to suicide — and I think it’s because they don’t feel connected anymore. If they were here, they’d be surrounded by people who love them, care about them.”

As staff learns of different needs, she said, they work together to address how to help in those areas. She said they recently created a group for only female veterans and their families. She also is working on a moral injury program and a military sexual trauma program.

“Sometimes people just need a place to feel safe. This is a safe hub for someone to come, no matter what it is. . . . We want to be able to provide for our veterans,” Russell said. “You hear a lot of bad press about us taking care of veterans, but I can tell you one thing: Here in the heart of Texas, we take care of our veterans.”

Veterans One Stop is an almost all-volunteer organization. Russell said it has 68 active volunteers. A volunteer training program will be available in August for anyone interested in assisting at the facility.

“Don’t worry, no push-ups required,” she said.

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Grand reopening of Heart of Texas Veterans One Stop

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Friday, 2010 LaSalle Ave., Waco.

Guest speakers: U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan; state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury; and state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco.

Keynote speaker: Kevin Zimmerman, U.S. Army veteran, two-time recipient of the Soldier’s Medal, author of “A Time for Everything: The Kevin Zimmerman Story.”

Info: The event is open to the public and will include food trucks, entertainment, games, and prizes.

For more information, go to hotrmhmr.org.

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