ARLINGTON, Va. – A few years ago, there were resources available to Central Florida veterans, but there was no centralized place to quickly and easily learn about them.
That all changed when Recovery Care Coordinator Richard Rodriguez and Retired Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Stevens created the Central Florida VETERANS social media group in 2018. The group serves as a hub connecting members with community resources and fellow veterans.
Stevens served ten years as an enlisted Army Tank Commander during which time he deployed to Iraq twice and was injured and received a Purple Heart. He also served as a Black Hawk pilot until he medically retired due to combat injuries.
When Stevens was transitioning out of the military, he looked for a support group in Central Florida where he could make real-time connections and develop camaraderie. Ultimately, he ended up starting one.
“It’s a place where we can kind of go to get an instant answer or instant help,” Stevens said.
The group started as a place to communicate and learn from each other’s experiences, but it grew into what it is now through word-of-mouth, Rodriguez said. Today, more than 1,000 veterans and over 100 organizations and employers belong to the group.
“I never expected it to be as big as it is now,” Rodriguez said.
He said that veterans have been offered opportunities to do all sorts of things, such as horseback riding, or hot air balloon, hunting or fishing trips. Recently, city officials offered veterans free admission to an event that promoted brain injury awareness and an airshow.
“There’s lots to do here, and this group helps spread the word so veterans can have a better quality of life,” Rodriguez said.
He said they’ve also posted dates for free lunches or locations where veterans can receive groceries. Community organizations that assist with mental wellness services and veteran service organizations that help with disability claims have shared information in the group, too.
Veterans have posted information about startups they’ve founded and real estate agents have assisted with home purchases, Rodriguez said. Local employers have helped members who lost jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic and colleges have offered unfilled class seats so veterans can earn information technology certifications.
The group isn’t just about resources; it’s also about community. The thing that Stevens likes most about it is that it takes geography out of the equation.
“Veterans, who are in some cases hundreds of miles apart, can be in the same place at the same time,” he said. “Some veterans are travel restricted and may not have a nearby network. This is their network.”
Over the years, Central Florida VETERANS has been there through hurricanes, natural disasters and now the COVID-19 pandemic to help veterans in need of food, shelter or jobs to find available resources, Rodriguez said.
“They don’t have to struggle with where they’re next step is going to be,” he said.
The social media group has challenges to overcome. Trust and rapport are needed so veterans will share issues within the group, Rodriguez said. There is also a misconception that they charge for the help provided.
For Rodriguez, that’s the best thing about Central Florida VETERANS — there is no cost associated with it.
“Everything on that social media page is completely free,” he said.