Growing up in a family of veterans, including her father, Amy Bamford said she has always had “a soft spot for men and women in uniform.” So when she began dating one of the co-founders of VALOR Clinic Foundation, she wanted to help out. Nine years later, Amy is now the Board Secretary and Vice President of Operations of the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit, which provides veterans assistance with accessing benefits, housing and more.
Over the years, VALOR — which stands for Veterans Assistance Living Outreach — has reached hundreds of veterans through its various programs and has ballooned from about 25 regular volunteers to about 300 regulars, as well as up to 1,000 volunteers across its various events and programs throughout the past year. Amy helps hold community outreach events in various cities and towns, oversees providing holiday meals to families across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio, conducts general scheduling and administrative duties, and more.
“Each person, man or woman, that has served our country in any capacity, whether it was during war or peacetime, has given the ultimate sacrifice of signing on that dotted line,” Amy said. “Those of us who have not signed the dotted line, myself included, have a responsibility here to support and make a difference in their lives as much as it does impact our own.”
Can you describe what VALOR does?
VALOR stands for Veterans Assistance Living Outreach. We are a Veterans Service Organization that provides a hand up on the homefront for veterans as opposed to just handing them something for free. The difference between us and some other places is we help to give them the tools for them to then be successful and not need us anymore. So whether it’s bringing them into a transition homeless shelter that we have, key word there being transition, so when they come into one of our transition shelters, we help to give them the tools they need to be successful as a civilian. That could be everything from getting a driver’s license, making sure they have income, and helping them with any health concerns they have.
In addition to that, we do a very large holiday meal program. We are up to about 150 families in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and about another 30 to 40 in Ohio. We make sure they have a full holiday meal, consisting of everything from eggs and bacon for breakfast to their ham or turkey and dessert for dinner. That’s delivered to them about two to three days before the actual holiday. We deliver it for Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving, so they don’t have to make the sacrifice with their family of making decisions of whether or not to be able to pay their electric bill or be able to really have a nice holiday meal for their family. They’ve sacrificed enough holidays throughout their life when they were serving, that we don’t think that aspect of it should be a sacrifice anymore once they’re home.
In addition to that, we have a program called Veterans Unstoppable which is a unique approach to PTSD. The piece I have to do with that is talking to spouses. They could be male or female spouses of the veterans and some of the things they need to learn and understand to help the veteran through the process. I do not teach those classes, they are done both in the retreat process and in a weekly more peer-to-peer type of assistance provided to them. We do what I call some oddities. A couple times a year we will place a service dog with a veteran that’s in need. We will team up with some other organizations to find a dog, get it trained and place it with a veteran who needs an actual service dog. We’ve also placed a couple emotional therapy or emotional support dogs throughout the years as well.
Describe your volunteer role with VALOR.
I do a lot of different roles. When I first started with the organization, my biggest role honestly was supporting the founder and helping to get other people interested in what we do. Then as I’ve evolved with the organization over the years, I am the Executive Secretary and I am Vice President of Operations. I sort of run the day-to-day operations of VALOR as a whole, which encompasses overseeing all fundraisers, making sure we have volunteers. I do what’s called a ‘Stand Down,’ so we go into towns and set up sort of a makeshift store that you don’t have to pay for. I create and set up locations and then train the people to be able to run it without me being there, but they still report up to me to let me know how successful or what challenges we were having. It’s like a community outreach program for both civilians as well as veterans in that aspect. During that event, we help to find the veterans who need additional help. So whether they’re homeless and need assistance in coming off the street, or maybe they’re already housed but they’re not receiving any kinds of benefits, I then work with one of our VSO people — mainly with [Sergeant Major Mark D. Baylis], who is our founder — to set up appointments with that veteran to help them get the benefits they need. In addition to that, if we know they are moving into their own residency — so maybe they were homeless and they’ve been in a shelter, whether it was one of our shelters or another one — I help to make sure our household goods team has the items that they need to be able to resource and stock this veteran’s house for everything from bed to pantry items.
The big one I help to oversee are the holiday meals as well as the ‘Stand Downs.’ I do oversee the activities and the events that happen both through fundraising as well as community interaction. My hands are out there for scheduling both myself as well as members of the organization to get out there and spread the word about what we do. I do a lot of the background administration work because there’s donation that come in that are both monetary as well as items, so everything needs to be inventoried and accounted for properly. There is never any charge to our veterans that we serve at all so we do a lot of different fundraising and have a partnership with a lot of different places.
How did you first get involved, and why did you want to?
The founder is my boyfriend. He was actually just starting it up when we got together and the funny thing is some of our first dates were actually going out to other veterans organization groups, VFWs [Veterans of Foreign Wars] and some American Legions and talking about what we were doing and how they could help us to get this program kicked off. Although I know that may sound sort of cliche that I didn’t need to join, because I didn’t, but I always had the ability and the heart to speak for people who don’t necessary know how to voice for themselves. In my younger years, I was a tremendous advocate for children with special needs and knew how to use my voice to help them along the way. I’ve always had a soft spot for men and women in uniform. My father is a veteran and most of my family, uncles and up, are all veterans. I think it’s part of my responsibility to use the talents that I have to make sure that they have the resources and know that people care. And sometimes that’s all it takes, knowing that somebody cares and being able to point them in the right direction to take the next step to become a successful civilian.
How has the organization grown since you first became involved with it nine years ago?
It has grown from that we used to do our holiday meals out of the back of our pick up trucks, to now we have about 60 volunteers that reach out to over 150 families. We used to only do a ‘Stand Down’ in one town. We now reach more than 10 cities through our ‘Stand Downs,’ which means that we reach an abundance of veterans — going anywhere from 10 veterans back when I first started, to now within a month we probably reach closer to 150 veterans through our ‘Stand Down’ process. But in addition to that, one of the biggest things that has grown is the awareness. We help to make people in the community aware of the need to help our veterans. That there is actually a need that some of our veterans are homeless and they need a hand up, they don’t need a hand out. There is a significance there that if you lend your ear, maybe that ear is going to help save a veteran’s life. We lose 22 veterans a day to the war at home which means [from] something during their time of service, they now suffer from PTSD and end up taking their life here on the homefront due to something that they experienced though the tragedy of when they were serving our country. If we aren’t bringing awareness about that, we cannot make an impact. I think that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve seen. In addition to that, we’ve gone from when I started, I’ll say probably about 25 regular volunteers, to now we probably have on a regular basis 300 volunteers, but that number goes up too. I think last year we broke about 1,000 volunteers that helped throughout all the different aspects we do.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from veterans?
I have had veterans tell me that if it wasn’t for our organization, they would not be alive. That to me is the biggest feedback and the most impactful feedback that has affected my life. Our household goods team comes back with stories that one day they delivered a mattress and a dresser to a father and his daughter. The little girl started crying and one of the guys said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And she said, ‘I never had my own bed before.’ To be able to make that type of difference to a veteran and his family, and provide them with something that can give them more hope and more reason to continue on for another day, I think that’s some of the best things we can do.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
There’s a huge one. We recently purchased a property, 192 acres … to build our own retreat building and property. Currently when we do Veterans Unstoppable, we are leasing out other places, other campgrounds or hotels to be able to have our weekend retreat. By purchasing this property, we are now going to be able to have are own buildings which also means we are going to be able to help more veterans come through the program, because of the resources that once our buildings are up, the dollar figure to have more veterans come through will decrease. We’re currently doing hunting and bow hunting and fishing events on this property. They are two of the sporting activities that we help our veterans to be able to have something to do when they see that ‘life isn’t going right, what can I do?’ Connecting with nature is huge for them. They have already enjoyed areas such as fishing and hunting that has been impactful on them. We actually give them some additional skills and some additional items to be able to continue to use that as part of their growth and their calmness. So having this new property is huge. We purchased the property and we hope to actually break ground probably in April or May of 2020, and then have our first building up and be able to start to do classes hopefully within that first year of building. The entire retreat property probably won’t be developed to it’s fullness, depending upon financial donations, probably for one to three years after the first building goes up.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Honestly, I have come in with so many veterans. There is, they’re now growing to be a family of five, but shortly after I started with VALOR, a very young Army husband and his wife and first child were introduced to us because he has PTSD and needed some help and was going in different directions. The embrace of watching this family grow and thrive, when they were at a point where they were all about to fall apart, is probably one of the most wonderful things I have witnessed. Watching them grow into a strong unit is something I don’t think I will ever forget. The programs that we have in place are to help to strengthen you as a person, but it also helps to strengthen relationships. So many of our veterans end up in divorce because people don’t understand, significantly their spouses on this one. We have to bring those pieces together…I think that we make a tremendous impact on their lives.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I’ve learned that the career that I have with Wegmans has given me the skills to really be able to apply listening, to share empathy, but not to be necessarily sympathetic to something I don’t understand. I don’t think before going into this I really had a whole understanding of the difference between empathy and sympathy, and our veterans don’t want our sympathy. They want us to understand to the best of our ability. I think as a civilian for myself, that one of the greatest things I can do, is listen and let them know that although I have never experienced what they have, that I will do what I can within my power to make a difference with them here today. Sometimes all it takes is somebody who cares. I think that’s been one of my biggest ones when it comes to dealing with the veterans.
The other thing that I have learned is that when you have as many volunteers as we have — and as we continue to grow we always need more volunteers — it takes a balance of people. So not everybody is going to want to be at a ‘Stand Down’ and not everybody is going to want to do holidays meals, but they want to make a difference. So you need to listen to your volunteers and really connect them with the part that they want to make a difference at. If that means they want to come in and cook a meal once a month, then we need to help them find that niche within our organization so they can feel appreciated both as a volunteer and that our veterans get the benefit out of that giving.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Amy? Visit All for Good for local volunteer opportunities.