Meeting veterans where they live plays a vital role in outreach at the San Mateo County Veterans Services office, but, with shelter-in-place orders forcing communities indoors, staff have had to move quickly to digital capabilities to prevent military personnel from slipping through the cracks.
“The biggest concern is that people are not connected to the services they need. I don’t think the process has changed any slower or faster, but if someone doesn’t come forward asking for help, it’s hard for us to ask them what else is going on in their life,” said said Ed Kiryczun, director of veterans services. and veteran of the Marines.
The SMCVSO acts as a bridge between veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs which provides federally funded services to military personnel. Kiryczun and his team aim to become a one-stop-shop for service members seeking benefits by also referring clients to mental health resources, food banks, and agencies offering housing assistance.
Typically, SMCVSO personnel can be spotted at locally hosted events in an attempt to connect with service members and family members who may not be aware of the organization’s existence. Health orders limiting public gatherings put crucial events on hold, ultimately halting the organization’s in-person outreach efforts. Kiryczun said the lack of physical presence raises concerns for the homeless veteran population with limited access to phones and other technology.
“I suspect that while we are helping a lot of vets, not allowing walk-in visits will impact certain parts of the population like the homeless. We were able to maintain a strong connection, but we need to start breaking out of the current pattern and start finding common ground to continue helping to some extent,” Kiryczun said.
While the San Carlos location at 555 Quarry Road is temporarily closed to the public, changes have been made at 400 Harbor Blvd. to enable telephone support that can put potential customers in touch with a veteran service representative. In order to maintain connections and continue to process cases, representatives strengthened virtual connections with clients by phone, video conference and email, directly assisting 823 veterans between March 16 and May 15 and taking more a thousand calls.
Although staff have seen continued engagement, Kiryczun said he is still concerned that these numbers remain low, noting that, like most other organizations, SMCVSO has been negatively impacted due to COVID-19. . These issues underscore the importance of building digital reach, something staff member Darren Adkinson has focused on.
“In a way, working from home as outreach staff is weird because I can’t go out and meet people in person. But I was able to continue with projects that I couldn’t dedicate more time to,” Adkinson said.
Strengthening the virtual campaign has always been a goal for him given the trajectory of the globe heading in that direction, Adkinson said and now those goals are being met out of necessity.
“It forced us to accept that paradigm and pushed me into areas that I wanted to get into earlier. We held back on the positives and worked on the negatives,” he said.
The people served by the organization range in age from World War II-era military personnel to millennial youth, a point Adkinson recognized as vital for outreach. While the older community may be more resistant to technical advances in communication, Adkinson has married old-fashioned outreach methods like snail mail with contemporary methods of information dissemination such as the media platform Twitter social.
“We try to be present in many places and it’s hard not to be seen. We are aware that we have vets of all ages and some are not tech savvy or interested in technology, so we also have traditional mail outreach,” Adkinson said.
He also said many have come to appreciate digital services for their efficiency, noting that learning to use platforms like Zoom, a video conferencing platform and email is half the battle.
Both Kiryczun and Adkinson emphasized the same message, SMCVSO is always open and ready to help service members and their families. All services, including assistance with pension claims, burial benefits, and service-related disability claims, are being processed.
“Veterans Services is still there and we can help you. Nothing has changed in our services and the most important thing to do now is to call us,” Kiryczun said.
Visit hsa.smcgov.org/veterans for more information on services provided by SMCVSO and follow @smc_cvso on Twitter for regular updates from the organization. Dial (650) 802-6598 to connect with a representative by phone.