Nearly a year after making the switch from in-home visits to a robust virtual engagement program for veterans, Department of Veterans Affairs Compassionate Contact Corps has gone national.
Compassionate Contact Corps is a volunteer-driven program providing constructive engagement while keeping the veteran and the volunteers safely socially distanced, said Cathi Starr, voluntary service specialist with the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System.
“It’s not all about telling war stories, it’s meeting the veteran where they need to be met,” Starr said. “A lot of people figured out the isolation that is occurring (due to the pandemic) is real and we needed to find a fix or something to help."
The program allows physicians, chaplains, nurses and social workers to pair volunteers with veterans of any age who are experiencing loneliness, are at risk for social isolation or could benefit from a companion. Veterans interested in participating require a referral by a VA clinician.
Starr’s program in Tucson currently serves 62 veterans from ages 30 to 98, along with 55 volunteers.
“The program provides a consistent weekly check the veteran can count on,” Starr said. “Right now we have a 98-year-old veteran with visual impairments and hearing impairment that couldn’t do phone calls, so I have her receiving services in the program by email – they’re communicating back and forth on a regular basis by email because she can make the text large on the phone and be able to read it.
“One of our veterans in his 40s has a traumatic brain injury. Before the pandemic, the volunteer would go to his home and play video games and sometimes they’d go outside and shoot hoops. Now they’re meeting virtually in a game room or playing against each other from their own homes and still communicate while they’re playing.”
Veterans and volunteers are matched based on common interests.
“It’s the personal touch of matching people up that I find is a challenge I enjoy very much,” Starr said. “I love the ones where it’s meant to happen. For example, this week I started telling (the volunteer) about the veteran and there were just coincidental things that matched up perfectly. It was just so awesome that it happens that way that I do feel like there’s a higher power kind of assisting me in my process.”
Based on their weekly engagement, trained volunteers can identify if their veteran is behaving in a way that isn’t normal for them, triggering a check by the VA health care team.
“Our volunteers offer early intervention,” Starr said. “We say they’re a set of eyes and ears for the VA and they detect minor changes before it becomes a big issue.”
The program has expanded to more than 50 VA facilities across the country and last week the VA partnered with the American Red Cross to boost volunteer recruitment for the program.
"We regard VA’s Compassionate Contact Corps as a best practice and signature program," said American Red Cross Senior Vice President Koby Langley in a release. "It directly aligns with our organization’s mission and the expertise of its cadres across a vast nationwide network of volunteers to prevent and alleviate human suffering whenever possible."
Interested volunteers can find available opportunities at their local VA or at the American Red Cross.
“It doesn’t matter where the volunteer is,” Starr said. “They can connect with a veteran anywhere there is a phone line or some other means of communication. We even have a couple of volunteers that are doing greeting cards and short notes for veterans – so we go from pencil and paper all the way up to video chats and anywhere in-between.”
An Air Force law enforcement veteran, Starr’s work in developing and implementing a Compassionate Contact Corps was recently recognized by the secretary of the Veterans Administration with an I CARE award.
“I don’t know which is better working with all the awesome people who have huge hearts and don’t care about getting paid or if it’s working – because I’ve always enjoyed connecting with other veterans – with the veterans themselves,” Starr said. “Getting them engaged and seeing that engagement is probably the most rewarding part of it.”