The Soldiers Project is a volunteer organization that facilitates free emotional-wellness services for returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. It was launched in 2004 by Dr. Judith Broder in Los Angeles. In 2010, a branch of the organization was established at Chestnut Hill College. It is directed by Sister Nancy DeCesare.
“My father is a disabled vet, so I felt that it was very important that veterans be recognized and cared for,” DeCesare said about her reasons for establishing the chapter. “I was a teenager during the Vietnam War and I clearly saw the lack of reception that the veterans received when they came home, so I really felt that we had to do something different for the men and women we sent off for this war and are now coming home.”
Clinicians at the Soldiers Project volunteer their time to give veterans the help they need. They work with loved ones, as well; providing free therapy to anybody with a personal connection to the war, including widows. “That’s a very important part of our mission,” DeCesare said.
Volunteer assistant and intake coordinator, Leslie Hoover said that this is what distinguishes the organization from others. “About one-third of our clients are not the veterans themselves, but are mothers, spouses, partners…,” she said.
DeCesare expressed that the organization is in need of more volunteers who are family and marriage therapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. “Those folks all have to be licensed and they have to hold private practice insurance and attend at least three trainings with us, and if they are not local to us, they can attend online,” she said.
The Soldiers Project Pennsylvania has clinicians in place throughout the state. When a call for help is received, the organization searches for and reaches out to clinicians who can meet the client’s needs. The criteria for matches includes proximity to clients and appropriate available services. It is then the responsibility of client to reach out for help. This approach has been the catalyst behind the organizations success rate.
“It’s not just the clinical piece,” DeCesare said. “We talk to veterans in outreach programs, veterans who come here to be part of our training. We all spend time talking to veterans on the phone telling them about the program and how we can help.”
Even though the organization does not provide outside help, in terms of employment opportunities or practical-skills training, they still do their best to help their clients reach high standards. “Because that’s not part of our mission, we can’t endorse any outside resources, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t do our best to provide help…we try to make sure that [veterans] are in touch with centers and local resources that strive to be as confidential as we are,” Hoover said.
“As an intake volunteer, you are the first line and you do interact heavily [with the client], but the main goal is to get them into that very personal and organic relationship with a clinician and not to act as a clinician yourself,” she said.
Volunteers are essential to the program’s success. “No one person can do this on their own,” DeCesare said.
“For me, I was born and raised in the military, I love the military and I understand the gravity of how important this is,” Brittany Russell of why she volunteers. “It’s been something I’ve been passionate about for a very long time, so it’s my pay it forward for what the military has done for me and for my family.”
“As a country, we’re becoming more and more aware of veteran needs,” DeCesare said. She credits services like the Soldiers Project for that.
“Many veterans, over 50 percent of them, do not use their VA benefits for mental health, for a host of different reasons. So, as private practitioners and people in the community – clinicians [who are] trained – there needs to be a community response to make sure we bring these folks all the way home,” she said.