In our first Friday Field Notes blog post we are highlighting how cooperative extension educators in Wisconsin worked with County Veterans Service Officers in their community to build capacity to address PTSD and Criminal Justice Response to Veterans in Crisis. Though the post focuses predominantly on veterans, the lessons herein apply to any practitioners engaged with military service men and women, whether active duty, reserve or National Guard, or discharged or retired veterans. As you read this post, consider how your efforts to build community capacity to enhance the resilience and well-being of military families might benefit from a collaboration with cooperative extension in your community.
Hello from Wisconsin! My name is Jessica, and my colleague Sandy and I recently became engaged in educational programming in partnership with our county Veterans Service Officer and our local Veterans Home. We are county-based Coop Extension educators located in Waupaca County, Wisconsin, and we’d like to share our story.
Discovering collaborative partnerships through educational programming
The day our local County Veterans Service Officer showed up at my office to ask for some advice for an educational program he was planning, I had been in the middle of planning pretty typical programming for someone in my position as a Community Development Educator – I don’t recall exactly what it was, but I’m sure it had something to do with downtown vitality or comprehensive plan updates. I never expected that this meeting would be the beginning of unchartered territory for my programming.
I knew very little about military families, veterans and their experience, even though both of my grandfathers and my father are veterans and I grew up as a military kid. So when Jesse, our local County Veterans Service Officer showed up at my office that day, I was interested in finding out more about our local veterans and about the role of a CVSO. Since he was only looking for advice, the time commitment would be minimal anyway, right?
That one meeting led to several more, and from the start we invited my office colleague and Family Living Educator, Sandy Liang, to lend her expertise as well. As many Extension colleagues across the U.S. can probably relate, sometimes it is these small requests that can open your eyes to seeing larger, impactful, “Big P” opportunities (P = Program. So what’ a “Big P”? Check out this video for an explanation).
Jessica invited me to a meeting with Jesse. I knew little about the issues facing military service men and women, but what I did know was that mental health was a concern facing many of them, and their families. I wasn’t sure what I could offer at first. “I’m on a suicide prevention coalition with members across sectors of the community. I can send the invite of the summit to the members,” I remember suggesting…trying to be useful. I was concerned that my lack of expertise in the area meant that I could not contribute much more—after all, my plate at the time was focused on parenting support, family finances, and of course, helping people ensure that their pressure cookers did not explode. What did I have to offer in this area?
Yet, at the meeting, the evidence was there—veterans, which comprise of 10% of our county population, needed more support. His enthusiasm was contagious. Like Jessica, what began as a small “p” became a big “P.” And such is the life of an Extension educator. In Extension work, your “Plan of Work” is a working document. Needs evolve or emerge. New partnerships develop.
So there it was, the beginning of something new for two relatively new county educators.
Planning and Hosting The First Event – PTSD Awareness and Criminal Justice Response to Veterans in Crisis
During our planning meetings with the CVSO, it became clear that there was widespread support among service providers – counselors, suicide prevention professionals, various agencies serving veterans. The number of people that wanted to speak kept growing and the schedule was getting tight.
We were all interested in obtaining behavior change. We wanted to offer more than just “information and education.” Given the short amount of time we had available to us in the already-packed schedule, we decided to design a session that would allow the participants to have a role in defining the issues, as well as a chance to identify what they could do now – without additional resources or authority. Our hope was that this would empower them to take action on their own.
This summit-style, rural county event attracted around 40 participants from several employment sectors. After the speakers and testimonials (and the tears), we separated the participants into “like” groups according to their industry or profession.
It is important to note that, although these were “like” groups, many were meeting for the first time—even though 100% of those who turned in surveys work with veterans. Emails were exchanged and connections were made…and in a small community, connection is critical.
What were the top needs for serving veterans in our community?
The resulting conversations provided us with a rich picture of their interest and willingness to act, as well as what they need in order to be effective. Qualitative analysis of the discussion notes revealed these top five needs for serving veterans in our community:
1. New resources.
2. More networking among service providers (“I didn’t know so many people cared,” a participant shared).
3. More community awareness.
4. More training opportunities.
5. More Veteran Liaison Officers (in law enforcement).
Another key role we played in pulling off this event was designing and administering the evaluation. Just over half of the participants completed an evaluation.
Gaining knowledge from an educational summit was one of our identified outcomes—and the summit was successful at that. As shown above, the majority of those that completed the evaluation left being more knowledgeable about PTSD, and felt that the topics were relevant to their field of work.
How has the momentum continued?
Though participants gained knowledge , they also seemed hungry for more. This was not surprising given the energy in the room after the group discussions. To keep the momentum going, on Pearl Harbor Day we followed up with an infographic about the effort and a link to a short survey that was aimed at gathering information on what they would like to do next.
But what ended up happening next was another unplanned twist in the story, one that has opened up a world of possibilities for future programming partnerships related to serving military service men and women, veterans and their families. So what happened? And where are we know? Stay tuned for more of our story in a future installment of MFLN CCB’s Field Note Fridays on how our partnership with Jesse led to the nearby Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, and is continuing to blossom and add to our programming (and our learning) in ways we could not have imagined.
A final note: Our programming has been enriched by being open to working on these issues, and it seems the feeling is mutual – we asked Jesse for a simple quote and he sent us a beautifully written letter, calling Cooperative Extension a “force multiplier” and sharing that he feels his office was made more effective because of his partnership with his local Cooperative Extension office. You can’t get more rewarding feedback than that.
Jessica became passionate about communities while growing up as a military kid, making frequent cross-country moves and living in many different cities. After obtaining her Bachelor of Arts in Urban and Regional Studies at UW-Green Bay, she proceeded to work in just about every sector of community development – Geographic Information Systems, urban planning and zoning, and economic development. In 2014, Jessica finished her Master of Arts degree in Communications & Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University, and began her journey as an educator with the University of Wisconsin Coop Extension where her current focus includes building capacity and facilitating an environment conducive to resilient communities.
Sandy Liang is a Family Living Educator for Waupaca County with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Her work includes community assessments, parenting education and family support for at-risk populations. Liang enjoys collaborative efforts, and is on several coalitions to support families in the county. She believes that together, we create a community to support thriving, resilient individuals and families.
Liang has a M.S. from Purdue University in Child Development and Family Studies. One particular project she enjoyed working on at Purdue was “The Purple Wagon” project, investigating children’s understanding and emotions relating to issues of war and peace.
Interested in learning more about this subject? Want to share a story? We invite you to comment.