On a recent Friday, I paid a visit to the Veterans One Stop, located on Austin Avenue in Waco, and discovered a place bustling with activity. Baylor University Law School was hosting one of its popular legal clinics, an event that fills the parking lot and has veterans booking appointments.
Throughout the building, people were greeting walk-ins and finding assigned offices, and outside a generous volunteer was grilling chicken, which quickly got distributed to appreciative vets.
With the warm welcomes and smell wafting around the picnic tables, it all had the atmosphere of hospitality. This is just the kind of place the Veteran One Stop was imagined to be: a destination for help, an oasis of hope and comfort, with an element of unexpected goodness, kind of like the donated barbecue feast.
About three years ago, the Heart of Texas Region MHMR Center invited the community to join an emerging collaborative designed to reach out to veterans in need. Two MHMR programs offered support through peer-to-peer networks and group meetings for military families. At the same time, a grass-roots coalition developed to help form a clearinghouse for community resources.
But it was the lucky convergence of an available 5,000-square-foot building, an assembly of willing volunteers and possible partners, and some combination of confidence and blind faith that converted a vision into reality: The Veterans One Stop center doors opened in January.
This “one-stop shop” has offices for as many as 10 agencies to offer services, a drop-in area with inviting couches that promote conversations, a small computer lab, a conference room and picnic tables for fresh air and fraternizing. All services are free for military members, their families and for the agencies that serve them.
A key asset was the relocation of the McLennan County Veterans Service Office. Helping veterans with claims, compensation and benefits has been a big draw for our military members. Other tenants have offered help with employment through the Texas Veterans Commission, and reps from McLennan Community College, Texas State Technical College and Baylor promote education benefits like the GI Bill. Military Order of the Purple Heart helps disabled veterans and myriad other agencies, services and individuals connect veterans every day in many ways. Although the hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, volunteers often field calls after hours.
A recent stat confirms what early believers suspected: The center is meeting needs. In the fiscal year that closed Aug. 31, Heart of Texas Region MHMR Center leads all other community centers in the number of veterans served, according to data from TexVet, an initiative of the Texas A&M Health Science Center (source: www.hotrmhmr.org/veterans-onestop).
With 8,500 veterans assisted, area citizens should feel mighty proud of this new community resource, and even prouder of the men and women who rightly deserve more than one building can ever contain.
Maggie McCarthy has coordinated the Veterans Coalition for the Heart of Texas (Vetzconnect on Facebook).