Meeting veterans where they are: Monroe Library makes space to help vets access services

Snohomish County’s Veterans Assistance Program outreach program coordinator Jerry Gadek works with Monroe woman Georgia Dahl at the Monroe Public Library on Thursday, March 15. Photo by Kelly Sullivan/Monroe Monitor

(This article was published March 27, 2018, in the Monroe Monitor.)

By Kelly Sullivan
Monroe Monitor

Georgia Dahl walked into the Monroe Public Library shortly before Jerry Gadek began packing up his stacks of materials on a Thursday afternoon in mid-March.

Gadek had spent a full day in the lobby, waiting patiently for others like the Monroe woman to arrive. He is never sure anyone will come, but he sets up his post once a month in case they do. About five men and women on average meet him each time he is in town, and that’s plenty to justify his visits, he said.

“He fights for the veterans,” said Dahl, 70. “He is the veterans’ advocate.”

Gadek brought the Snohomish County’s Veterans Assistance Program outreach program back to Monroe three months ago. For years it was held at the local WorkSource. It shut down a year and a half ago, after six months without a visitor, Gadek said.

Then he got a welcomed invitation.

Gadek and Monroe Library director Phil Spirito first met when Sno-Isle Libraries scheduled a panel on veterans and mental health as part of the organization’s Issues That Matter series. Experts went over the impacts of war and how veteran programs are needed more than ever because the lasting trauma during a Jan. 27 forum.

“The survivability of the war that we are engaged in currently is off the charts compared to other wars,” said Washington Department of Veterans Affairs Traumatic Brain Injury Program specialist Dan Overton during the event. “The reason we are having such an influx of problems with traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and PTSD is because of our folks that are coming back.”

Spirito said the needs of his own patrons have also shifted. Libraries historically have been protectors of literary materials. Now he sees libraries can be even better put to use by more freely offering resources up. To him that has meant getting to know the demographics and needs of the people walking through the doors.

Among those groups he sees in need are veterans and people experiencing homelessness. He had been looking for more ways to reach out to those men and women when the option for the panel came along, and he connected with Gadek.

Gadek, who is also a veteran, said so many barriers exist that can get between his clients and assistance. Some are geographical, while others have to do with culture. In the past seven years he and his staff have tried to address those disparities.

“The benefits issue is huge, much more than most people know,” he said.

It is not often in a veteran’s nature to ask for help, Gadek said. It is crucial their first try is at the right entry point when they do. If the experience isn’t positive, they are likely not to try again, he said.

Gadek said nearly 54,600 veterans live in Snohomish County. It is safe to estimate every one in 10 people have served, he said, and that percentage is slightly higher in East County, which is why it is a critical area to target.

At the same time, people tend to either have trouble getting all the way out to Everett, or don’t want to deal with the stress and hassle of coming to a big city center for services, Gadek said. That’s why he travels to meet veterans elsewhere three times a month, which does include Everett — outside of his office — as well as Lynnwood for community outreach. Sometimes even picking up the phone can be too much, which is why his staff created an online portal for those who prefer to connect with providers that way.

Many of the veterans he sees are either extremely low-income — paying 30 percent or more of their paycheck on housing costs — or homeless. He was surprised when working with a woman, whose husband was a veteran, started crying when she found out she could get an extra $42 a month because of her status, because it allowed her to keep her cellphone on, Gadek said.

Health care is the number one benefit veterans struggle to get connected with, Gadek said. Sometimes his clients are deciding whether they skip lunch for five days to buy their medication when they come in. It doesn’t have to be that way, he said.

Even if someone doesn’t qualify for Veterans Affairs benefits, there are local programs Gadek can connect people with. His staff can help them work with local landlords who will give discounts to tenants who are veterans, he said.

Dahl said Gadek is one of the only specialists she knows of in the county trained to assist the average person, such as herself. She came in on March 15 to ask about death benefits for a disabled veteran, but preferred not to elaborate. Navigating the many documents, and knowing the proper terminology doesn’t come intuitively for most, she said.

When she had called to make an appointment with Gadek, his staff told her he would be at the library the next day. She was relieved, she said, because it was only a five-mile drive from her house.

Gadek said right now he doesn’t have enough hands to expand the outreach days to more than three each month. As soon as it’s possible, he plans to make the visits more frequent. Veteran outreach at the Monroe Library is held on the third Thursday each month. Appointments are not required.