When service members separate or retire from the military, more than 45,000 nonprofits, thousands of public agencies, and countless other organizations and individuals aim to support their transitions back to civilian life. This series explores how communities across the country are collaborating across public, private, business, and social sectors to better connect the systems that serve veterans, by leveraging the principles of “collective impact.” The subjects featured are all members of National Veterans Intermediary (NVI) Local Partner collaboratives.
Pennsylvania is home to an estimated 930,000 veterans — 5,000 of whom reside in McKean County, a rural area in the northwestern part of the state. “We don’t have access to things in our backyard, like a city like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh does,” said Zach Pearson, an Army veteran and director of the county’s Department of Veterans Services. “So how do we combat that and still provide excellent service to our veterans?”
The answer: Design a model that invites all community members to become stakeholders in veterans’ well-being, and work collectively toward the achievement of goals that support them.
McKean County’s approach deploys the “collective impact” framework. Jennifer Splansky Juster, executive director of Collective Impact Forum, describes the all-hands-on-deck approach as building “a shared understanding of a problem and a commitment to solving it together.”
When it comes to addressing complex social issues and creating lasting change, collective impact, which effectively mobilizes diverse participants with the same agenda, can generate more momentum than any one person or group working in isolation.
McKean County’s Department of Veterans Services makes sure local veterans and their families get the county, state and federal benefits they’re entitled to. But for Pearson, assisting vets doesn’t stop there. He’s also dedicated to helping them find steady employment, receive counseling and access medical care.
To reach those goals, Pearson has built a framework of companies, nonprofits, hospitals and schools. Thanks to his efforts, each month for the past two years 28 members of the McKean County Community Veterans Engagement Board have carved out time for strategic planning. After clearly defining the biggest issues facing local veterans, they create a plan that outlines the steps needed to address them.
“We’re not there to eat lunch together,” Pearson said. “We’re there to solve problems.”
Pearson serves as the group’s leader, bringing together state representatives, county commissioners, the regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency, anti-homelessness advocates, and suicide prevention coordinators. “If someone has an impact on veterans’ lives, they’re asked to be on my board,” he said.
The network’s information-sharing and aligned activities have produced bold results, and incorporating diverse perspectives and opinions adds invaluable input into real-time issues. For instance, when Pearson learned that some veterans had no choice but to drive four hours to the nearest VA hospital in Pittsburgh for cancer treatment, he met with decision-makers at the regional airport and Southern Airways Express, an airline that serves the area. They agreed to offer veterans $19 fares. The collaborative also arranged free ground transportation and helped coordinate hotel stays for veterans while they were in Pittsburgh.
“It’s simple outside-the-box thinking,” said Pearson. “Almost everyone I’ve come across is 100% willing to help.”
To get more exposure for his efforts and increase community engagement, Pearson regularly hosts live Q&A sessions on Facebook. In 20-minute increments, he might explain what Pennsylvania’s chapter of Wounded Warrior Project does or give an overview of the VA Medical Center’s services.
“It’s like an introduction to the organizations in our backyard,” he said. “One of the most positive parts of my job is putting someone in contact with a service they didn’t know about.”
It’s something he gets to do more often these days.
“The fact that [veterans] are blowing up my phone — that’s a measure of success,” said Pearson. “I can get a phone call telling me a veteran’s disability [application] was approved, but that doesn’t mean as much to me as 25 phone calls in a day. People are trusting that we can help them.”
Next on Pearson’s agenda? Spreading the word about how the collective impact approach has helped the veterans in McKean County.
“If it works for our county, it’ll work for others,” Pearson said. “When the community gets involved in veterans’ lives, more members are encouraged to go get help.”
This article was produced in partnership with NVI. NVI’s Local Partner network is the nation’s largest, most diverse, and most inclusive network of communities committed to the successful integration of veterans and military families. Learn more about NVI here.