Building on Success, Western MA Vets' Group Expands Work
Soldier On is a non-profit that's built a reputation as a staunch advocate for homeless veterans in the Northampton and Pittsfield areas. Its success has landed it a series of federal grants aimed to show it has found a model that can be replicated around the country.
In the kitchen at Soldier On's Pittsfield center for veterans' services and housing, Chef Jason Stump chops kale and combines his gourmet flair and eye on health with a nod toward his patrons' desire for meat and potatoes.
"Now we're just setting up lunch. We're basically doing kind of a a Portuguese-style soup. Its got kale, sweet sausage, potato, garlic. it's good 'cause it's a good way to have these guys eat kale. Kale is very high in vitamin C, high in fiber."
In the next room, a veterans' support group meets. Next door are nearly forty housing units owned by vets who had previously been homeless.
The Soldier On model combines housing and other much-needed services in one place, to make it easier for veterans who've fallen on hard times to find help and stick with the programs they begin. But recent grants from the federal Veterans Administration and Department of Housing and Urban Development have Soldier On taking its model on the road. Organization president Jack Downing says they're identifying vets who need help and bringing it directly to them.
"We know the model works, and the model works so well that we've extended it out and taken it to an extreme level. A year ago in New York state we were given 20 counties, and that's now been extended to 40. We have six counties in New Jersey, and we're looking at about 30 more counties in the Northeast."
They're even making modular versions of their award-winning housing units, which can be customized to fit the architectural style of different regions of the country. A $6 million dollar federal grant has Soldier On laying plans to build 44 modular units on Northampton's VA hospital campus, a move Downing says is unprecedented.
"It's the first time in the history of our country that the VA has ever done anything like this. They're doing it as a place where they can do research and prove how valuable the model is, and how cost effective."
Chef Stump left work at a Boston-area restaurant to relocate with his wife to the Berkshires earlier this year.
The work is a little less flashy, but he says it pays him back in other ways.
"This is a whole different experience, you know, and it's great. I just love the fact that I'm cooking for veterans. What more can you ask for? Guys that have served their country—andy ou kn I'm fortunate enough to be here with them, and cook for them, and we learn together."
Soldier On plans to begin construction on those 44 housing units in Northampton in March.