California has the highest number of veterans of any state in the nation with more than 2 million military veterans calling the Golden State home. Many of these veterans return home with "service-connected" disabilities, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In 2011, the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco (ILRCSF) seized the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of veterans by honoring the Veterans' Art Guild's (Guild) request to meet weekly at ILRCSF, which offers veterans a supportive environment to share their stories through art
Started by veterans, social workers and arts educators/therapists at the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC), the Guild is a social and support group for veterans living with PTSD and other disabilities to work on creative projects, such as writing, painting, photography, film-making and sculpting, as a form of expressive therapy.
When ILRCSF's Executive Director Jessie Lorenz and ILRCSF's Director of Programs and Development Lana Nieves met with the counselor in charge of SFVAMC's therapeutic artistic expression program, he described a prescriptive program focused on the medical model of disability where participants were graded on their performance. He expressed interest in finding a flexible environment for the Guild that encouraged openness and creativity.
Lorenz and Nieves subsequently met with a SFVAMC's social worker and the veterans who were the driving force behind the Veterans' Art Guild. They suggested moving the Guild to ILRCSF where veterans could create their art with greater freedom and with fewer restrictions.
"The idea fit perfectly with the Independent Living philosophy," said Nieves. "So, we made it a condition of our partnership with the Veterans' Art Guild that every participant would be afforded the same respect and consideration as anyone else at ILRCSF. We do not hide sharp objects or treat the veterans differently, and there's not been a single incident of unrest at ILRCSF involving any Guild member."
Primarily supported by ILRCSF, which provides the meeting space, equipment and administrative services, the Guild also receives funding from the Veteran's Administration for supplies and equipment. Since 2011, the Guild has grown from one or two vets showing up sporadically to weekly creative workshops of up to 20 veterans as well as a week-long veterans' oral history and film-making project that filled ILRCSF's conference room to capacity. The men and women of various ethnicities come from all walks of lives and range in age from 19 to late 80s.
"Many veterans, especially those who have seen combat, have very difficult stories to tell, and those stories are often difficult for others to hear, as well," noted Nieves. "ILRCSF is about people interacting with other people, and the Guild is about placing value on the lives and life stories of veterans, while embracing and welcoming them as members of the wider community."
A case in point is one Gulf War veteran living with PTSD who was reluctant to participate in veterans' activities and tended to withdraw.
A few months ago, he started attending Friday Guild meetings and other events on a regular basis. An accomplished artist, his work was featured in ILRCSF's Americans with Disabilities Anniversary Art Exhibit in 2012. He spotted Nieves on a bus recently and told her he was so happy to be engaged again with his fellow Guild members at ILRCSF where they can create their art in a welcoming setting that encourages freedom of expression.
"We want ILRCSF to be thought of as a community center, and veterans are an important part of our community," explained Lorenz. "This place is theirs, and all of our services and events are as much for them as for any other San Franciscan."
Independent Living Centers (ILCs) throughout California strive to ensure veterans with disabilities have access to the best and most up-to-date support services available to live independently in their communities. Some of these include help with state or federal benefits information, employment services, peer support and counseling or housing assistance.
"California ILCs have successfully engaged the veteran community by cultivating relationships built on trust," said California State Independent Living Council's Executive Director Liz Pazdral. "Veterans know when they enter the door of an ILC their voices will be heard and their stories will be respected."
The California State Independent Living Council (SILC) is an independent state agency which, in cooperation with the California State Department of Rehabilitation, prepares and monitors the State Plan for Independent Living.
The SILC Mission: To Create Policy and System Change for Independent Living
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