EdCC proudly supports and salutes veterans

Kasanita Lindell, Staff Writer

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Walking into the second floor of Lynnwood Hall, one can’t help but notice the new Veterans Donors Wall sculpture.

Cold steel veteran silhouettes keep silent watch over metallic gold stars that adorn the upper half and silver stars across the lower length of the unique work of art.

On Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2016, the Executive Director of the EdCC Foundation Brad Thomas took the mic to unveil the Wall of Donors.

“This is not a fundraiser event, this is a celebration, so let’s celebrate.”

A small crowd of people had gathered in the Lynwood Hall foyer, chatting and munching on finger foods. Among them was EdCC President Dr. Jean Hernandez.

Dr. Hernandez was instrumental in supporting the Boots to Books and Beyond campaign, which rose funds for the Veterans Resource Center (VRC).

Dr. Hernandez said, “It was George Smith … He started the first Veterans Resource Center, and then it was about two years later then we moved it to the big space.”

Hernandez warmly remarked that her father, who passed away in March, was a World War II veteran who taught her a lot about patriotism. She is very supportive of the Veterans Resource Center.

During his remarks at the dedication, Thomas suggested that we should not take things for granted here.

“People are just blown away that a community college raised about a million dollars in about one year flat.”

Thomas echoed the thoughts of the rest of the amazing team who work together to produce the veterans refuge – which is not dependent on state or federal funding but on the heart and soul of this generous community.

“What a great honor it is to be here and celebrate a great moment,” he started.

“We have this wall in front of us reminding us every day, anyone that comes into this building, how important it is to honor our veterans and support them in every which way we can.”

USAF veteran and Boeing retiree Steve Pennington has served on the EdCC Foundation for over seventeen years.

Pennington was one of the first students to enroll in EdCC when the college first opened its doors in September 1967.

He hesitated at first when approached about helping co-chair the Boots to Books and Beyond fundraising effort, until one of the foundation board members convinced Pennington that they needed him on board.

It was around then that he was introduced to Dr. Bill Keppler, who Pennington described as “one of the finest human beings on the face of the earth.” It was his distinct pleasure and honor to work very closely with Dr. Keppler.

Pennington said, “We immediately realized that our job was to kick the stones out of the path of success for our incoming veterans, not to marginalize the veterans and not to victimize.”

Eventually they worked out the outline of the current program, which supports veterans on their way from the military to education.

When asked about the From Boots to Books memorial located in the courtyard, Pennington explained the student veterans association decided on their own initiative several years ago to create a monument that celebrated the transition of military to college life.

They designed From Boots to Books to be able to express the basic feeling: “I’ll kick my military boots off one day to put on civilian clothes and come to class.”

They raised the money to have it built, cooperated with the campus arts committee and public works committee, and picked out the perfect spot – on a hill, under a tree and facing a walkway.

In 2010 they got the approval of former EdCC President Jack Oharah and Vice President John Michaelson, both veterans, and installed the memorial.

Faculty, staff and students attended the dedication ceremony; it was a big deal according to Pennington.

Chris Szarek takes his role as director of EdCC’s Veterans Resource Center seriously. He was hired in Sep. 16, 2013.

Patriotism and the desire to go to bat for his brothers and sisters in arms is nothing new for the 20-year Navy Seabees veteran, who saw his last posting of two years at U.S. Interest in Cuba.

“I wear many hats, so my staff can work fully focused on what they do.” He does all the budgeting, the marketing, the outreach and events.

All this effort is centered on building and solidifying the support network to help veterans succeed at getting back into civilian life.

When veterans show up with needs to address such as housing, food, clothing and more the center goes into high gear making sure those needs are met.

The VRC has helped many veterans avoid homelessness, find jobs, provide food and clothing, and helped with education and taken care of those needing mental health care.

“I would say we’re very veteran supportive,” Szarek beamed. G.I. Jobs Magazine sends out a yearly questionnaire to fill out every spring, which determines EdCC’s rating as a ‘military friendly/veteran supportive’ college, which it has been for many years. This is a very impressive success story for a completely privately funded department.

It is easy to see how the VRC designed to help veterans. You enter into a cheery well-lit room with seating areas, coffee making facility and a full size refrigerator in one corner.

The memorial wall of photographs of the fallen contributed by family members is down the hall just outside of Szarek’s office. Awards and proclamations for service and performance adorn the main hallway.

Folded American flags from burials, given to the VRC by families, are carefully displayed in glass cases.

There is a veteran working on his laptop in a room veterans can use to relax and have some quiet time. Tables and chairs are neatly arranged in a large room with four computers and a printer available to veterans and their families.

Apart from the staff offices, there is a cozy looking study room with a large variety of books filling a huge floor to ceiling bookcase, and a spacious conference room with whiteboards where veterans undergo orientation classes prior to starting regular classes.

Szarek is in charge of getting out a weekly bulletin every Friday that goes to all of the supporters who help make the VRC possible.

At the unveiling of the Donor Wall, Szarek invited both Dr. Keppler and Pennington to front of the audience to hand them honorary name tags. The tags recognized their selfless dedication and incredible service in being mentors, guides and family to veterans.

“It is very important that people know that as you go about your business here and out in the community that you are our village elders,” commented Szarek.

Looking to the future, Szarek mentioned the Veterans Resource Center is bringing a new graphic designer on board in the new year. They will initially be on board for six months, bringing the VRC and the campus their experience and expertise.

The VRC is also working with an organization called Operation Military Family, in their efforts to increase their media presence and stay current with the changing technology.

That’s how it rolls. Great leadership, a willingness to listen, and being open to ideas that will work.

The VRC’s core mission is to help veterans make the difficult transition from serving in the armed forces to becoming a well-trained contributor in our society.

We should be very proud of the hard work of the whole staff, the dedication of the college administration, and support given by the volunteers needed not only to make EdCC veteran friendly, and as an example of how to get things done for one of the most essential part of our society.

For those who serve.