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VA New England Healthcare System


Peer specialists connect over virtual coffee

Veteran peer specialists

VA Veteran peer specialists, Karen Milliken, left, a Navy Gulf War Veteran, and Jessica Mack, an Air Force Veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom connect with Veterans over a virtual coffee (photo by Charlotte Doherty, Veteran peer support specialist and Air Force Veteran).

By John Paradis, VA New England Healthcare System
Monday, August 17, 2020

BEDFORD, Mass. -- Richard Cote, a Navy Vietnam-era Veteran, calls in to a virtual coffee every day from his home in Lowell, Mass.

Joining him are other Veterans from the region and Veteran peer specialists from the nearby Bedford VA Medical Center.

With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing many Veterans from leaving home or the ability to see a VA clinician for face-to-face care, the VA New England Healthcare System has relied on its 80 Veteran peer specialists to ensure Veterans stay connected.

Veteran peer specialists at Bedford VAMC established a video chatroom link in March, near the start of the pandemic, as an impromptu way for Veterans to meet up each morning for a “how goes it” chat over coffee.

“It’s a great way to start the day,” says Cote, who fixed jet engines on fighters and attack jets when he served stateside in the Navy during the Vietnam War. 

Navy Veteran Richard Cote

Navy Veteran Richard Cote calls daily into a virtual coffee with VA Veteran peer support specialists.

Veteran peer specialists at Bedford VAMC

For many Veterans, VA peer specialists are their main source of daily human interaction. Calls can sometimes last an hour and a half – providing a much-needed daily ritual for Veterans to check in with one another. The purpose is simple – to talk and see how everybody is doing. “Just to check in and ask, ‘are you doing OK?’” says Anthony Russo, a Navy Veteran who supervises a team of VA Veteran peer specialists. 

The sessions have allowed Veterans a simple and convenient way to socialize and continue relationships that otherwise would have been difficult without the video coffees.

“It’s the highlight of my day,” says Cote, who used to go to in-person coffees with other Veterans before the pandemic. “Now there’s no other way to get together in person, so these virtual coffees work out just fine.” 

The coffees, conducted over video conferencing, also allow Veterans an opportunity to discuss what’s on their mind during the pandemic and give them a chance to share information and ideas. More importantly, Cote says it’s an excellent way to help reduce everyone’s anxiety and stress, including that of the peer specialists, who share many of the same day-to-day life struggles and concerns.

“Our team gets just as much out of the coffees as the Veterans calling in,” says Russo. “The role of a peer specialist is more important now with COVID because we can provide empathy and understanding based on our shared experiences. We are using our life experiences, whether it be with mental illness or with a substance use disorder, to help and mentor others going through similar struggles.”

Cote credits two VA Veteran peer specialists, Karen Milliken, a Navy Gulf War Veteran, and Jessica Mack, an Air Force Veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, for keeping the calls both informative and lighthearted too.

“They really keep it a lot of fun – they make you want to call in every day,” says Cote.

Fourth of July presented an opportunity for the group to celebrate virtually with a special Independence Day-themed coffee, complete with holiday trivia and letter writing to hospitalized Veterans.

While the coffees have been a way to inject a sense of relative normalcy during a time when many Veterans are juggling family and work obligations and dealing with the challenges of a pandemic, they can also be life changing.

During a recent call, Cote says important information was shared about a VA monthly free produce market where Veterans can drive up and get free fresh vegetables and other food items. 

“The coffees are so important to me; it is where the Veterans form friendships,” says Veteran peer specialist Milliken. “I have seen the guys form and build these bonds. They worry, care, and check on each other.”

The Strength of Community Partnerships in Connecticut

The virtual coffees have been part of an overall strategic effort by VA New England to ensure the VA keeps a personal connection, whether by phone, video call, or by driving to a Veteran’s location when necessary to help Veterans in need. 

Since peer support specialists already have strong community ties, they were able to quickly transition to a virtual platform and provide social support, help with food insecurity, and increase access to VA and community services, says Jay Gorman, a psychologist with VA New England’s Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center.

Veteran peer specialists have been a crucial link to community and expanded social support for Veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic. At VA Connecticut, for example, peer specialists pick up bags of food from local community churches and deliver them directly to more than 60 homes of Veterans in need in the greater New Haven area.

Other Connecticut peer specialists send out gift bags with assorted crafts donated from various Veteran support agencies. The same team also connects with Veterans each week by sending out a newsletter to over 200 Veterans, complete with puzzles and their own homespun jokes and perspectives about how they are dealing with the pandemic.

All of these strategies have made a difference, says Gorman. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the pervasiveness of loneliness that was already prevalent in the Veteran community before COVID-19, emphasizing the importance of prioritizing social connection during these times, says Gorman, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine.

“COVID-19 has underscored the necessity of strengthening community partnerships,” says Gorman. “The virtual socials are an ideal way that our Veteran peers and community members can follow physical distancing guidance and simultaneously foster a connection. It’s been a great experience for us.”

Gorman says the peer specialist program continues to work on a regional level with other VA medical centers in the VA New England Healthcare System and at the national level to further identify ways to increase social connection through community partnerships. 

“Ultimately, we want Veterans to be healthy and safe, but we also recognize that we are in a global crisis, and with that comes more stress, which can lead to an increase in mental health challenges,” Gorman says. “I’m inspired by the work of my colleagues and the Veteran community here in New England, and I’m also proud of the platform we’ve created to not just support Veterans but enable Veterans to support one another.”

VA Connecticut Veteran certified peer specialists

talk about how they connect with Veterans
during the COVID-19 pandemic

Michael Doyle, Marine Corps and Army Veteran

For the past 11 years, Michael Doyle has worked on the Psychosocial Rehabilitation Residential Treatment Program.  The program serves Veterans struggling with serious mental illness or substance use disorders, and who are homeless or living in conditions not conducive to recovery.

When the program closed in March due to COVID-19, Doyle initially worked at the Incident Command Center answering telephones and helping to distribute personal protective equipment.  When the incidence of COVID-19 decreased considerably, and the Incident Command Center closed, Mike began supporting the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center and Vocational Services programs at VA Connecticut where he reaches out to Veterans to check in with them and inquire about their technological needs, access to services and satisfaction with care. 

Says Doyle: “I have enjoyed it so far because I know a lot of the Veterans, so we talk about old times, too. It’s good for them and also for me.”

Eugene Chesney, Army Veteran, and Maxine Barela, Navy and Army Veteran

For Peer Specialists Eugene Chesney and Maxine Barela, feeding Veterans became a priority during COVID-19.  Since March, they have been picking up bags of food from St. James’ and St. Paul’s Episcopal churches in New Haven, Conn., and delivering them to the homes of Veterans. 

Chesney, a member of VA Connecticut’s HUD-VA Supported Housing program, proposed food deliveries for Veterans in “critical” need, such as those with zero income, medical or mental health conditions and other factors that prevented them from obtaining groceries.  They now have 32 Veterans on a critical list who receive food on a weekly basis.  In addition, they deliver to Veterans faced with food insecurity any time during the month.  Typically, they deliver to over 60 Veterans per week.

Chesney developed this relationship with the Episcopal parishes in March and keeps track of all the Veterans needing food.  Weekly, he now also has four to six teammates delivering bags of food to Veterans homes as part of an elaborate mapped out delivery system.  Standing outside their apartment buildings, they also get check in and see what else the Veterans may need. 

Says Barela, a member of VA Connecticut’s Critical Time Intervention Team: “We want to make sure they have food so they don’t have to expose themselves to others by going to food pantries and churches themselves.  It’s also a nice opportunity to say hello.   Sadly, for some Veterans, we are the only other people they are seeing during this time.”  

Webster Lucky, Army Veteran, and Paul Thompson, Marine Corps Veteran

When COVID hit in March, Webster Lucky and Paul Thompson, members of VA Connecticut’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center, shifted from in person groups and individual peer counseling and case management support to offering telehealth groups and peer counseling.

To keep Veterans engaged with activities, they deliver gift bags with assorted crafts donated from various veteran support agencies. They also began writing, editing and mailing out a weekly newsletter to over 200 Veterans.  In addition to highlighting VA and community resources, adding some puzzles and jokes, the peer specialists also write weekly perspectives about their own experiences during COVID.  Here are two excerpts from recent newsletters:

From Paul Thompson: “We are a little over halfway through the year now.  What have we accomplished?  What would you like to accomplish?  There is still time to make a change.  I was thinking this year was a wash until I realized the positive changes I made during the pandemic.  I learned more about myself.   I found ways to be more resourceful.  I found a way to get toilet paper.  I am proud of the fact that I have managed to control myself over the past several months.  Germs and diseases used to cause me great fear.  I used to use fear as an excuse to conduct myself in a wild manner.  I realized at the onset of this pandemic that I would have to resist urges that strike me to my core.  In the face of fear, I will no longer melt into a bottle or tiny plastic bag.  I will conduct myself with dignity and patience.  And I will talk to my friends when I feel like I need help.  I will tell someone how I am feeling before I let my feelings become too much.  We are not alone, and we can get through this together.” 

From Webster Lucky: “Well another week has passed and we are still here.  What have I learned about myself?  One thing is my name is Webster, and I’m clean and sober.  Last weekend I had a terrible anxiety attack.  It felt like the walls were closing in on me.  It reminded me of my past, some 30 years ago, sitting in an 8x4 jail cell for several months.  During that time, I made promises to myself that I never kept.  As I sit in my house all alone, I seem to be doing it again (making promises to myself), but this time things are a little different.  Today I can keep them promises and share them with you.  First, I will embrace change and live life on life’s terms.  What does that mean?  I will accept the things I cannot change, aw there’s that word change.  I can’t seem to escape it and well news flash, neither can you.  During this pandemic it gives me time to make adjustments in my life for the better such as make more phone calls, attend weekly services via Zoom, and join a recovery group via Zoom.  There is always room for improvement to try new things, plan out adventures enjoy loved ones more and most of all stay health and happy.  Remember happiness comes from within.  People like us can get well, stay well and do the things we want to do with our lives.”    

ABOUT VA NEW ENGLAND:  VA New England Healthcare System, or VISN 1, is one of 18 Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VISN 1 has 11 medical centers, 45 CBOCs, six community living centers and two domiciliaries.


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