In Ventura County, with an estimated 40,000 military veterans alone — and numerous more who are currently active — two local nonprofit organizations have made it their mission to provide needed services to the military men and women who risk their lives to keep America safe.

Ventura County Military Collaborative

A retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, Connie Hanson first discovered the Ventura County Military Collaborative while working with Kim Evans, who was the director of psychological health at the 146th Airlift Wing at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station.

“We were both working with a victim of sexual assault and helping that individual work through the military processes in her recovery,” recalled Hanson, a former resident of Ventura who moved to Bakersfield earlier this year.

“Kim put together an idea to bring together some community resources that would benefit the military in Ventura County,” said Hanson.

The first meeting of the collaborative took place on base at the 146th Airlift Wing in 2011. From there, Evans’ idea grew rapidly.

“We basically outgrew the space at the base and then it moved to the Ventura County Community Foundation in Camarillo,” Hanson said. “Then National University was good enough to provide us meeting space.”

Today, the Ventura County Military Collaborative is located at 4001 Mission Oaks Blvd. in Camarillo. The organization, which officially became a nonprofit in December of 2014 began with 20 agencies and now involves 195 government and nonprofit organizations that serve veterans and military members in Ventura County.

“The Ventura County Military Collaborative is the largest nonprofit provider of direct services and programs to military and veterans in Ventura County,” said Evans of Camarillo, executive director and founder.

The collaborative offers a range of services, including a free legal clinic, assistance with finding jobs and housing, and an annual Military and Veterans Expo that involves numerous agencies that serve veterans and military in Ventura County. There is also a Battle Buddy Program and Veterans Book Club, as well as Operation Snowflake, an annual effort during the holiday season in which a network of nonprofit and private organizations joins hands to distribute toys to children of service members and veterans.

The Ventura County Military Collaborative hosts Operation Snowflake, which distributes toys to children of service members and veterans, at the collaborative’ s main office in Camarillo.

The Ventura County Military Collaborative hosts Operation Snowflake, which distributes toys to children of service members and veterans, at the collaborative’ s main office in Camarillo.

“All of the programs are unique to the Ventura County Military Collaborative in Ventura County,” Evans said. “We try hard to only produce programs that are not duplicating existing programs by other agencies. The legal clinic is the only veteran and military clinic in the county — same with the expo, Operation Snowflake and the Battle Buddy Program.”

Evans is a military spouse whose husband retired from the Navy last year as a master chief with 26 years of service. From 2006 to 2013, she was a therapist with the Army National Guard.

“I was attached to a unit pre-mob, while they were deployed to Iraq and when they came home, to provide mental health,” said Evans, adding that she was later the director of psychological health at the 146th Airlift Wing from 2010 to 2013. “I was a non-deployable asset for both positions. I was also the Veterans Court community liaison from 2013 to 2016 with Judge Toy White at the Ventura County Superior Court.”

Hanson was part of the effort to establish legal services for veterans and military members in Ventura County, which the collaborative identified as a need.

“We worked with the various bar associations within Ventura County and we were able to recruit some volunteer attorneys and paralegals,” Hanson said. “Once a month they provide their services. Military and veterans can sign up and come in and have a consultation with a legal representative about an issue they have in their life.”

Oftentimes, when a military member or veteran walks in, “They don’t know what’s happening, where to go, or how to fix or resolve their problems,” Hanson said. “I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve seen people walk out, and they just have this sense of relief on their face. They have a sense of direction and a game plan of what their next steps are.”

The legal profession in Ventura County has been very supportive of the legal clinic offered through the collaborative, Hanson added.

“The best thing about the Ventura County Military Collaborative is, we really do have a collaboration,” Hanson said. “It’s truly the concept of two plus two equals five — in the case of the collaborative, it’s more like two plus two equals 10 because there is such amazing work that comes from all these individuals.”

Moses Mora, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, joined the collaborative’s Veterans Book Club last year. Since then, he has enjoyed the monthly meetings at the Camarillo Library, where he reads and discusses books with about a dozen other veterans.

“I like to read to begin with and I read several books at a time,” said Mora, 67, of Ventura. “And I read a lot about Vietnam anyway, so here was an opportunity for me to read and discuss various books — that’s one of the draws for me.”

The book club itself was never designed or organized, necessarily, to be any kind of therapy, Mora said.

“But a lot of participants will say that it is therapeutic to them even though it wasn’t designed to be that,” he said. “Veterans are a tough nut to crack. It’s hard to get through to veterans because of what they’ve been through. We’re always looking for things that calm us, keep us interested, keep us engaged, keep us balanced — and this club does those things. So it’s not a bunch of guys griping about the service or anything — it’s for people who have gotten beyond that and want to make the best of the rest of their lives.”

Don Todd, an Air Force veteran who also served in the National Guard, heard about the Ventura County Military Collaborative about five years ago.

“Kim explained to me what the goal was: to bring together organizations within her community nonprofit, and to be very cautious and careful of the for-profit organizations because a lot of for-profits may not be looking out for the best interest of the veteran,” said Todd, 70, of Ventura.

“It was an organization I wanted to get involved with because, as a Vietnam vet and coming home and looked at like a fifth-class citizen, I intended to help veterans to make sure no other vet came home for the same type of lack of understanding,” Todd said.

He currently volunteers for the collaborative, and his role includes assisting with the legal clinic as well as Operation Snowflake and the annual Military Expo.

Todd also helps with the collaborative’s Veterans Court.

“Part of my civilian occupation is, I have 20 some years as a substance-abuse counselor, so having worked with the courts, that was something right up my alley,” he said. “We also have a free legal clinic once a month for veterans where they can meet with an attorney.”

Todd also received help with his military benefits from the collaborative.

“If it hadn’t been for Kim and the collaborative, I probably wouldn’t have 100 percent right now — I was able to get my 100 percent that I had applied for expedited a little faster,” said Todd, adding that he suffers from PTSD. “I’m 100 percent disabled and I’m receiving 100 percent compensation from the VA.”

Right after he got out of the service, “I didn’t know where to turn … the VA was treating us like crap so I just walked away,” Todd said. “It was determined that I suffered from PTSD and I should file a claim. And I did, through the support of Kim and the Ventura County Military Collaborative.”

The nonprofit effort is made possible through a grant from Wells Fargo, event sponsors, individual donations, “and by sheer grit and determination of our volunteers and our amazing collaborative partner agencies — most of whom are military and veterans themselves,” Evans said.

“We are important because we provide services and programs directly to military and veterans in need,” Evans added, “but better yet, we are constantly striving to understand and adapt to the veterans and military that we serve. Honestly though, we just have the best time helping people.” 

For more information, call 805-983-4850 or visit VCMilC.Org.

Gold Coast Veterans Foundation

The wife of an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and died in August at age 81, Darlene Daigle was attending a women’s prayer group at her local church when another member told her about the Gold Coast Veteran’s Foundation.

“My husband had been in the military for 20 years, and people kept saying, do you know if you have survivor’s benefits,” recalled Daigle of Westlake Village. “And I was overwhelmed because he never really spoke about his military career. So one of my prayer partners said her husband went to the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation and got all this help.”

With that, Daigle called JC Oberst, a U.S. Navy veteran and the foundation’s executive director.

“JC told me that they were there to help veterans,” said Daigle, who further learned that the foundation helps veterans with their paperwork every Wednesday.

The first step was to find her husband’s military discharge papers, but she was unsuccessful.

“I go there on a Wednesday — but I don’t have the paperwork,” she said. “JC said, ‘we’ll get you another one.’ ”

Oberst quickly worked through the channels to obtain the proper paperwork for Daigle. But when the forms arrived in the mail, they were for the wrong soldier.

“I took it to JC … and a couple weeks later I got the new discharge papers,” she said. “I was so impressed with all his graciousness with his willingness to help without any condescending attitude at all. He said, ‘We’re proud that your husband served,’ and all the volunteers there are really amazing.”

Members of the foundation also go above and beyond the call of duty, Daigle said. For instance, before her husband died in August, Oberst connected her to the Honor Guard that was present at her husband’s funeral at a church in Agoura Hills.

“They had five men, from every branch of the military,” Daigle said. “The fellahs played taps and I was presented in the church with an American flag. It was unbelievable.”

Today, Daigle is still waiting for the status of her husband’s military discharge papers.

“You have to wait eight to 12 months to find out what the government decides,” she said. “I hope I receive some compensation, but if I don’t, it doesn’t change how I feel about the agency.”

The foundation provides a soft spot to land for those who have served our country and don’t know where to turn once they leave the military, Daigle further emphasized.

“We forget how much they gave us and how some of the veterans come back ill-equipped to be able to manage ordinary life because of all the trauma,” she said. “If you know a veteran who needs help, call these people first — they’ll put you in the right direction. I can’t say enough good things about the organization that I had no idea before August even existed.”

The Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, which operates the Veterans Connection in Camarillo, is unique in Ventura County, said founder Ron Greenwood, a Purple Heart recipient who was wounded in Vietnam while serving in the Army.

“There’s never been a foundation like ours in Ventura County,” said Greenwood of Ventura. “Nothing like this has been done where we make sure every single veteran has whatever they need — they can come to one place and find out.”

The Veterans Connection, which opened in 2013, is a “one-stop shop” that collaborates with businesses, agencies and organizations that assist veterans. 

“In addition, we provide direct services and support to veterans,” said Oberst of Camarillo, a Navy veteran who served more than 28 years and retired at the rank of Captain, USN.

Oberst recalled a typical day earlier this year that reflects ongoing efforts at the Veterans Connection:  

“A mother brought in her son, a veteran, looking for assistance with VA programs and support for her son. A widowed spouse of a veteran was referred to us for assistance with housing because she is afraid she cannot afford her rent payment and will be evicted. An elderly retired veteran called looking for assistance obtaining his retired pay W-2. Two young veterans stopped for assistance finding jobs, and one needed assistance with transportation. A gentleman and friend of a board member called from Texas asking for advice on his neighbor who is a veteran and who has legal issues stemming from military duty.”

The foundation helps veterans receive everything they’re entitled to, said Greenwood, adding that there are approximately 40,000 veterans living in Ventura County out of 900,000 residents.

“Our goal for 2017 is — how do we get the word out to the community for all these hundreds of thousands of people who don’t know about us,” Greenwood said. “Whatever a veteran’s needs are, we will take care of it. And if we could get more support from the community we can provide more programs and service many more veterans.”

Last year alone, the foundation served more than 1,500 veterans; and in the last four years, along with the Ventura County Community Foundation, the foundation gave away $175,000 in support of local vets.

“The reason we can take 88 cents out of every dollar (for the veterans) is because we have very little overhead,” Greenwood said. “We have lots of volunteers who come in just because they know it’s a great cause and they can change someone’s life.”

For Rosemary Clites, the foundation had a major impact on her mother-in-law, Jane Griffin, an 86-year-old Marine veteran who lives in a mobile home in Camarillo.

“She has lost the ability to walk; her feet have swollen up tremendously and she doesn’t have mobility in her legs; her muscles have become unattached from the bone,” said Clites of Camarillo.

When Clites first contacted the foundation in early October, “They were the most gracious, kind people. They were super-nice to me, but these people really seemed to go out of their way for my mother-in-law. They not only wanted to meet her physical needs, but her emotional and mental needs.”

The foundation gave a scooter to Griffin, “And JC offered us a little ramp that she can use in areas of her home,” Clites recalled. “And my mother-in-law was so taken aback, she donated a couple extra walkers to the foundation because they were so gracious.”

Clites noted that Griffin served in the military for two years.

“It wasn’t like a veteran who had been in the service for 25 years and served four tours,” Clites said. Nevertheless, “They make you feel so comfortable. They don’t make you feel like you’re begging for something. They’re just so gracious with what they have to offer because they want to help all veterans.”

For more information, visit www.goldcoastveteransfoundation.org or call 805- 482-6550.