Local veterans chapter works to expand services

Published 5:17 pm Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Members of Chilton County Chapter 33 of the Disabled American Veterans are trying to expand their reach in the community and remind people that veterans’ services are available locally.

A volunteer office has been open at the Chilton County Courthouse for nearly two years to assist veterans with obtaining their benefits and services earned through military service.

Mike Welborn, commander of Chilton County Chapter 33 of the DAV, said the chapter is starting to rebrand the office as the “Veterans Resource Office” to denote a broader range of services available to veterans.

“We’re offering more services than just filing your benefits,” Welborn said. “We want to be there for the community and at least point them in the right direction, even if we can’t help them personally.”

The county’s original Veterans Affairs office, administered by the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs, closed in June 2012 after a lack of state funding led to cuts in the Veterans Affairs department.

Welborn and Phil Burnette, adjutant of Chilton County Chapter 33 of the DAV, were among those who worked to open the volunteer office in the former Veterans Affairs office, with permission from the Chilton County Commission.

Services include assisting veterans and their families in obtaining health benefits, educational benefits, disability compensation, survivor benefits, burial benefits, homebound aid and attendance and applying to have military records corrected or updated.

All claims are filed with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

“If people don’t know about this, they can’t take advantage of our services,” Burnette said. “We’ll help any veteran that lets us know they need help.”

The office is located on the first level of the courthouse, directly across from the Chilton County Sheriff’s Office.

Burnette, Welborn, Barbara White and other certified volunteers take turns manning the office, which is open Monday–Thursday at 9 a.m.

Walk-ins are accepted, and appointments can be made by calling (205) 280-4685.

Burnette said volunteers who staff the office must be trained and certified each year through a two-day course the DAV offers.

“We have to attend it, complete it and pass the tests administered there,” Burnette said of the course. “The VA doesn’t let just anyone file a claim for a veteran.”

Four volunteers currently man the office, but Burnette and Welborn said they are looking at getting a few more people trained to help, which could allow them to open the office five days a week or incorporate evening and weekend hours to the schedule in the future.

Chilton County Chapter 33 of the DAV meets the second Saturday of every month at 11 a.m. at Real Estate Associates on Highway 31 North in Clanton.

The chapter has 108 members on roll.

DAV eligibility requirements are as follows: “Any man or woman, who was wounded, gassed, injured or disabled in the line of duty during time of war, while in the service of either the military or naval forces of the United States of America, and who has not been dishonorably discharged or separated from such service, or who may still be in active service in the armed forces of the United States of America is eligible for membership in the Disabled American Veterans. Others who are disabled while serving with any of the armed forces of any nations associated with the United States of America as allies during any of its war periods, who are American citizens and who are honorably discharged, are also eligible.”

Conflict periods include World War I (April 6, 1917–July 2, 1921); World War II and Korea (Sept. 16, 1940–Jan. 31, 1955); Vietnam and other engagements (Jan. 31, 1955–Oct. 14, 1976); Iranian Crisis, Lebanon Crisis, Invasion of Panama and other engagements (Nov. 04, 1979–Jan. 31, 1990); and Persian Gulf Crisis and other engagements (Aug. 2, 1990–present, until terminated by presidential proclamation or congressional resolution).

“We are open to anyone that wants to join,” Welborn said. “We have opportunities to serve for people who have a little time or a lot of time.”

Burnette and Welborn said they are looking for a “new home” for the chapter and volunteer office.

“We need a larger meeting place,” Welborn said and added that adding computers veterans could use in the office would allow them to search for jobs, research benefits and more.

Since it is not state-funded, the volunteer office runs on donations.

All services are offered to veterans free of charge.

“We don’t ask veterans for a dime, but we won’t turn it down if they offer it,” Welborn said. “We’ll be happy to help them, and we’d love to have them help staff our offices.”

According to Welborn, roughly 10 percent (about 4,000 people) of Chilton County’s population is comprised of veterans.

“We service Chilton County and have people from Calera, Bibb County and Prattville,” Welborn said.

Another piece of the puzzle is forming a DAV Auxiliary group for Chilton County Chapter 33.

Katie Hilyer and her mother, Elizabeth Ginsburg, are spearheading efforts to re-establish the first auxiliary group the county has had since 1953, according to Welborn.

“We hope to have it up and running this year,” Welborn said. “We have to have a minimum of 10 members before applying for a national charter. They support the DAV chapter, and they are authorized by the chapter to form.”

Earlier this year, Ginsburg saw a sign on the DAV volunteer office door and told Hilyer about it.

The two said they weren’t aware the county’s Veterans Affairs office had closed and that Chilton County had a DAV chapter running a volunteer office.

Hilyer talked to Burnette and White to see if she and Ginsburg could help.

“We’re trying to step in,” Ginsburg said. “These are our people. We’re talking about local people that are coming back [from duty] and have nothing.”

Hilyer said the auxiliary group needs at least two more people to reach the minimum, but she hopes to exceed 10 members.

“The auxiliary’s job would be to do more recruiting, put on the events and take care of anything else that needs to be done,” Hilyer said. “It’s just more help for the veterans … to help them find the resources they need.”

Helping veterans is especially important to Hilyer because she has several in her family and extended family on both sides.

Her stepfather’s brother served in Vietnam, and her stepmother’s father is Ivan Smith, former adjutant general of the Alabama National Guard.

Hilyer and Ginsburg plan to go through training to become Veterans Service Officers so they can help Welborn, Burnette and White fulfill veterans’ needs with filing paperwork for benefits and other services.

Hilyer said her main goal is to implement Horses For Heroes, a rehabilitation program in which veterans work with horses to overcome physical or emotional impairments from combat.

“I think that’s going to be really cool if we can get that off the ground running,” Hilyer said. “It could really become something, and that’s my goal.”

Hilyer and Welborn will have a table at this year’s Peach Jam Jubilee on June 27 at 5 p.m. at Clanton City Park to talk to people and distribute information about getting involved in DAV Chapter 33 or the auxiliary.

A raffle for a home flag set will be held to raise money for the office.

“That’s kind of the whole thing in Chilton County – trying to make it a bigger presence,” Hilyer said of the DAV. “I think having a local chapter that’s solid will help.”

Auxiliary membership requirements include having a veteran in one’s family who served in the armed forces for the U.S. and was honorably discharged.

For more information, visit Auxiliary.DAV.org.

Those interested in joining the DAV Chapter 33 Auxiliary can pick up and turn in forms at Barnes and Hilyer, 307 Second Ave. N., or call Ginsburg at (205) 755-7003.

Hilyer said she hopes to eventually hold a health screening and benefits fair for veterans.

In the meantime, the chapter is publicizing several upcoming events for veterans and their families.

A Family Fun Day will be held Sept. 6 at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

DAV Chapter 33 will provide the pavilions and hamburgers and hotdogs. Attendees are asked to bring a side dish.

The park entrance fee is $3 per adult, $1 for seniors (age 62 and older), $1 for children ages 6-11 and free for ages 5 and under. Entrance fees will not be paid by the chapter.

Activities that will be available include stables; walking, biking or riding horses along trails; golf; swimming; fishing; petting zoo; and camping, RV and primitive.

Food will be served at 1 p.m.

Those attending should RSVP by Aug. 27.

For more information, call Welborn at (205) 755-6509.

The chapter will hold a Veterans Day fundraiser Nov. 1–11 at Golden Corral in Pelham off Interstate 65 Exit 246.

A benefit gospel singing organized by Heaven’s Strings will be held Aug. 1 and 2 at the Jemison Municipal Complex.

Proceeds from the singing will benefit the county’s Veterans Resource Office.

For more information about DAV or Chilton County Chapter 33, visit DAV.org and DAVch33.org.