Inaugural Community and Veteran Wellness Fair a Big Success
Galloway, N.J. — Dallin Matthews must make some major life decisions soon.
The 30-year-old has spent about the last six years as a firefighter in the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Cape May, but injuries from the job have forced him to “redesign” his life.
“Soon I will be getting out of the military, and I needed guidance for education and the future of my family,” said the Utah native while holding the hands of his 2-year-old son, Raylan, and his wife, Samantha.
Matthews said he’s feeling more optimistic since stopping at Stockton University’s new Community and Veteran Wellness and Resource Fair on March 16.
The inaugural event is a partnership with Stockton’s Military and Veteran Success Center and the Wilmington Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Delaware to bring together 75 vendors in one place in the university’s Campus Center Event Room.
More than 200 people attended the all-day event that featured access to several VA services, including women’s health, nutrition and substance use; the Atlantic County Department of Health; and nonprofit organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project.
“This is huge,” Matthews said. “The information I’ve gathered in the last five minutes is going to change our entire future because it’s just hard to get those answers if all these people aren’t in the same place.”
Stockton's Ashley Jones, left, the assistant director of the Military and Veteran Success Center, and Jacqueline Hinker, the veterans community outreach specialist for the Wilimington Veterans Affairs Medical Center, helped to organize the fair.
Connecting veterans and members of the community to the right people was the main goal of the fair, said Ashley Jones, the assistant director of Stockton’s Military and Veterans Success Center.
Jones said one of her roles is to help Stockton students who are veterans get housing, access to food and health care and other basic social necessities.
“I see what the needs are and the gravity of those needs and the impact on the students and their academics,” she said. “By sharing it out in the community, I can only assume that (other veterans) are having the same sort of stressors.”
And while she’s hoping that some veterans who attended the fair will decide to come to Stockton, that wasn’t the fair’s primary goal.
“I’m just trying to get vets connected to resources so that way they can be successful,” she said. “I’m glad these events happen because you can put some of those pieces in front of a person and say these are the people you need to talk to.”
One life stressor after the military can be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Brian Wiener, the former State Commander of the New Jersey Veterans of Foreign Wars, had a booth at the fair with his father, Norm, to promote a new Veterans Therapy Surf Camp.
“I’ve been surfing my whole life, and I know the peace and solitude that it offers you,” said Wiener, 52, of Brigantine. “I wanted to bring some fellow vets into this.”
The Wieners started the surf camp last summer in his hometown. He partnered with the nonprofit Warrior Surf Foundation to provide PTSD therapy sessions, yoga classes and surfing lessons to veterans.
“It’s something different for a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the ocean,” Wiener said. “They get on the board out in the water, and they realize it’s a great coping mechanism.”
Wiener especially likes that the camp appeals to younger veterans at Stockton and in the community. This year’s event will be Aug. 7 and 8. Call 609-457-1624 or email email@example.com for more information.
Getting more general information about services was what drew Sean O’Brien to the fair. The 48-year-old from Mays Landing flew helicopters for 30 years in the Coast Guard at Air Station Atlantic City. Since he retired in December, he’s “just kind of feeling my way around to see what’s next.”
Norm and Brian Wiener, of Brigantine, spread the word about a Veterans Therapy Surf Camp they set up this summer. They were one of the 75 vendors that participated in the fair.
He said he heard about the fair through the VA, and he was especially interested in learning more about medical benefits available to veterans and possibly attending Stockton.
“Education is where I’m going next, but I’m still trying to figure myself out,” he said. “I don’t even know what questions to ask, but it’s nice to be able to have all of this. It’s like a one-stop shop.”
O’Brien’s situation is common for many veterans recently out of the service, where everything was laid out for them, Jones said.
“The time you leave. The time you sleep. Everything about your schedule is set,” she said. “When you come to the civilian world, nothing is laid out. It’s more up to your discretion for what you want to do.
“It can be very difficult finding that path. That’s why we have these events so they can ask questions,” Jones said.
The idea of one central place for veterans to gather as much information as they can is what attracted Veterans Affairs to partner with Stockton, said Jacqueline Hinker, a veterans community outreach specialist for the Wilmington VA, which also covers Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.
Hinker said this is the largest fair she’s been a part of, and she hopes to make it an annual event with Stockton, adding more vendors to keep it growing.
“This event is needed because they say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes the entire community to wrap around a veteran,” Hinker said. “We want to be where the veterans are. When a veterans comes in, we want them to leave getting their questions answered, or have their services taken care of, or learn something new and get connected to something else.
“We couldn’t do that by ourselves as separate entities. But as (the military) says we are better in numbers, and we are showing these numbers here at Stockton.”
- Story by Mark Melhorn, photos by Susan Allen