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Written by:  Andrea Downing Peck
Date: November 1, 2011

When First Lady Michelle Obama made her reality television debut on Extreme Makeover Home Edition this fall, she focused on the needs of military families not only in North Carolina, but throughout the nation. She also joined community volunteers in Fayetteville to build a new home for Barbara Marshall, a Navy veteran who established Steps-N-Stages Jubilee House to shelter and counsel homeless female veterans.

Rebuilding a home in one week's time may not be typical of the projects Obama envisioned when launching her "Joining Forces" initiative for military families, but it provided proof of what can be accomplished when communities, businesses and individuals step up to give something back to service members.

Veterans Day on Nov. 11 is the perfect opportunity to honor the military by participating in projects and programs in the Triangle area that support the military community.

Helping veterans offers rewarding volunteer experiences

North Raleigh's Mary Andrews, whose husband, father, uncle and son all have served in the U.S. Army, volunteers four hours a week at the United Services Organization center in the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Working at the USO has allowed her to get to know today's young service members as well as a 94-year-old World War II bomber pilot who recently stopped in.

"It's been fantastic," Andrews says. "It's been very, very rewarding getting to meet all the wonderful young service members. We are very delighted with what we see."

Patricia DeZetter, assistant director for the USO's airport location, says new volunteers typically assist at military homecomings, family days, deployments and community events before filling open shifts at the airport center or serving as airport ambassadors, who direct military members to the USO's Terminal 2 location.

What advice does Andrews have for those who would like to volunteer?

"Just don't think," she says. "Act."

Sandy Block of Military Missions in Action, a Fuquay-Varina-based nonprofit organization that modifies homes for disabled veterans, agrees that time spent giving back to military veterans and service members brings its own rewards.

"Most volunteers, once they have finished a project, wonder why they hadn't done it before," Block says. "It is a very fulfilling thing to do. It makes you feel a part of the community and, because of cutbacks, it is so necessary that the community comes to the aid of others, especially our veterans."

During its four-year existence, Military Missions in Action has renovated the homes of roughly 40 area veterans, building everything from wheelchair ramps to a home addition. Volunteers are needed not only for construction projects, but also for office work, community outreach, fundraising and other tasks.

At the moment, Block is looking for a volunteer to research the value of donated items that could be sold for more money on eBay or Craigslist than at the organization's Snapdragon Thrift Store in Fuquay-Varina.

Organizations offer 'innovative' assignments

Durham-based Veterans Helping Veterans of America President Theodore Stephens is confident he can tap the talents of any volunteer willing to help in his "one-stop resource center for veterans' needs." The 3-year-old nonprofit helps veterans re-enter civilian life by providing employment services, art and music therapy, a food bank, counseling, education training and computer classes to area veterans.

"There are a couple of us who wear dual hats here," Stephens says. "If you want to volunteer, we can use whatever talents you might have to help us in this endeavor."

One local organization not short on volunteers is the Durham Veterans Administration Medical Center. The center currently has about 1,400 volunteers who commit to working a minimum of four hours a week for six months.

Ronni Miller, chief of voluntary service, says the medical center has "very innovative assignments" and provides volunteers with a personalized experience, beginning with a one-on-one interview to learn where they may want to work in the facility, which serves mainly an older veteran population.

Volunteer assignments range from assisting staff dieticians and making patient call reminders to creating a Durham Veteran's Administration Medical Center Facebook page.

Volunteering "is a great experience," DeZetter says. "Until they do it, I don't think people realize how much they can get out of it. You are always going to get out 10 times what you put in."  n

Andrea Downing Peck is a freelance writer who often covers military family life.


Local Military-Oriented Volunteer Opportunities

*     Durham VA Medical Center, Voluntary Service Office: Call 919-286-0411 or email ronnimiller@va.gov. For a list of volunteer assignments, visit www.durham.va.gov/giving/assignments.asp.

*     Joining Forces: Visit http://joiningforces.allforgood.org to find local opportunities.

*     Military Missions in Action: Call 919-552-1603 or visit www.militarymissionsinaction.org.

*     Steps N Stages: Call 910-977-2303, email womenvets@stepsnstages.com or visit http://stepsnstages.com.

*     USO of North Carolina, Raleigh-Durham International Airport Center: Call 919-840-0941 or email rduvolunteercoordinator@uso-nc.org.

*     Veterans Helping Veterans of America: Call 919-598-9997 or email vhvainc@yahoo.com.

*     Veterans of Foreign Wars: www.vfw.org.

*     The American Legion: www.legion.org.





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