Veterans Choice Program Law Changes

On April,19 2017, The President signed a law that removes the August 7, 2017 expiration date and allows VA to utilize funding dedicated to the Veterans Choice Program (VCP) until it is exhausted.

The VCP is a critical program that increases access to care for Veterans by authorizing millions of appointments for Veterans in the community.

The fact sheet below highlights the three changes made to the VCP. You can also view the fact sheet by clicking this link: Choice Extension Fact Sheet FINAL

Choice Extension Fact Sheet FINAL_Page_1 Choice Extension Fact Sheet FINAL_Page_2

Veterans Groups Hope More Money Will Lead To Better Care

Some Illinois veterans groups want to know how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would spend the additional $4.4 million proposed in President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget.

The budget blueprint states the president wants “to improve patient access and timeliness of medical care” for the nine million veterans who use the system.

That’s good news for veterans like Lynn Lowder, CEO of 1 Veteran at a Time, an Aurora-based organization that promotes veteran entrepreneurship.

“Anything we can do to help the VA to do their job better is a good thing,” Lowder said. “But just because you are going to increase the budget by ‘X’ percent, doesn’t necessarily equate to a better form of healthcare.”

Lowder, a Vietnam War veteran and a retired lawyer, said he wants to know where the increased spending would go, and how it will be spent by the VA.

“It’s the quality of the healthcare, and the responsiveness of it, that makes an enormous difference to veterans,” Lowder said.

Lowder, 71, said getting access to care can be a challenge, and veterans often require help navigating the system.

It’s unclear how the VA will specifically use the added money if it is approved by Congress. A spokesman for the agency could not be reached for comment.

“I sincerely hope that a portion of the new funding is going to be designated to support programs for not just veterans but military families and the caregivers as well because they play an important part in the lives of the veterans, especially those who are recovering from injuries,” said Ken Barber, who is head of the Chicago-based nonprofit Illinois Joining Forces. The group works to connect veterans with services, including healthcare.

Barber, a Navy veteran, said he would welcome the funding boost because “veterans deserve the best care and support that this country can provide.”

“I think this funding will result in more resources being available to veterans within their community. That means resources like Illinois Joining Forces are more important that ever,” Barber said. “Illinois Joining Forces ensures that veterans can identify the resources that are available to meet their needs within their particular communities and helping them navigate the pool of all the resource providers out there. That’s going to be just as important as having funding behind those resources.”

Illinois is home to more than 700,000 veterans, according to the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs.

To see the original article, please follow this link.

Chicago Tribune: A Sweet Ending for One Veteran’s Years of Service

“They served all of us. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye”. These words were spoken by President Reagan regarding the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Tracey E. Williams-Hunter (“Tracey”), paused for a moment of silence along with the other members of her battalion. January 28, 1986 was also Tracey’s first day serving in the U.S. Army.

Tracey’s six years of service in the U.S. Army weren’t always easy. Over the years, she was stationed in different parts of the world. Tracey began her basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Bamberg, Germany was her first duty station. Upon re-enlisting, she joined the 25th Support and Transportation Battalion in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Some days were filled with loud noise as soldiers practiced their artillery skills. Drill sergeants were often the first person you would hear in the morning.

During her years of service, Tracey had primarily worked as a food service specialist. She served thousands of meals to captains, commanders and other soldiers. While serving in Hawaii, Tracey would frequent many of the award winning cuisine and restaurants strategizing different recipes. She spent years developing a portfolio with her recipes. Unfortunately, one day, her recipe portfolio was stolen. Tracey was looking forward to the day she had a place to call home.

A few years after she completed her service for the U.S. Army, she was in the process of moving with her husband from their basement apartment to their new townhouse. Tracey’s husband had started a new job. It would be a few weeks before he received his first paycheck. Tracey soon realized that she would not have enough money for the security deposit which was required for the townhouse. Tracey felt her grip become looser and looser on the townhouse she once so optimistically envisioned.

Tracey anxiously got on her computer and did a search which included the keywords “veterans and housing”. Illinois Joining Forces (“IJF”) appeared on her screen. She immediately contacted IJF, which ironically was also her birthday. A staff member at IJF quickly responded to her call. The next few days Tracey and IJF worked together feverishly exchanging information. In approximately two weeks, Tracey was ecstatic to hear that the Homes for Heroes Foundation, through IJF, provided the necessary funds to her new landlord. Tracey is grateful she had the necessary assistance to get her over this hump.

Tracey still resides in that same townhouse today. She is living her dream with a dessert business called “Tracey’s Smack Ya Momma Desserts!” and a catering business called “Blessed & Highly Flavored Catering”. She proudly shares her business on her Facebook page: Sweetznsavory Chef Tracey. Tracey’s goal is to expand her business to include event planning in which she would call “Virtuous Woman Events Planning, Party Planning and Catering”.

Tracey’s best seller is called “Tracey’s Reeses’s Peanut Butter Cup Caramel Chocolate Cake”. “It’s made with fresh peanut butter frosting”, adds Tracey. When asked, Tracey said she had a baker’s secret she would be willing to share. Very enthusiastically she would stroll down the baking aisle in the store gazing at the various items such as baking chips, candies, syrups, and baking mixes. From there she would brainstorm what delectable concoctions she could create. Tracey has training in the Culinary Arts but never received any formal training or instruction in the dessert business. This is a skill that was self-taught as a result of her hard work, ambition and curiosity.

IJF connects service members, veterans and their families with approximately 500 veteran serving organizations (VSO). In collaboration with these trusted and dedicated member organizations, veterans are provided with the respect and care they deserve in order to live productive lives. Family is included in this network because of the integral role they play in the life of the veteran.

Our veterans serve and protect us so we can go about our daily business safely. Unfortunately, when a veteran returns home, they are often presented with new challenges that effect everyday living. “The most common issues veterans face are employment and financial assistance”, said Ken Barber, Executive Director at IJF. As an entry point for these veterans, IJF offers assistance in the following areas; Behavioral Health, Financial Literacy, Benefits and Emergency Assistance, Housing and Homelessness, Education, Legal Support, Women Veterans, Employment & Job Training, Family, Children and Survivors and Faith-Based Organizations.

Tracey receiving the financial support she needed is one example of how an IJF network organization helped her. Others include, one veteran who received a pair of work boots he needed to start a new job. The emergency assistance fund provided a veteran with a train pass he needed for work. Transportation was also provided for a veteran so he can attend a medical appointment.

There is an estimated 700,000 veterans living in Illinois. Illinois ranks tenth in the nation for the largest veteran population. In Illinois, Chicago has the most veterans with Belleville following. IJF’s vision is to find these veterans, and work seamlessly with the other organizations to ensure veterans have the services they need regardless of where they live.

No matter what your situation, IJF has options within reach. If you wish to contact IJF by phone, please call 877-236-7702. During business hours, the call center is operated by veterans at the Chicago Lighthouse. As veterans, these employees understand how difficult it could be to ask for help. During non-business hours, a suicide prevention number is provided.

For those with access to a computer, please visit or email at In addition, last Fall, IJF launched VetQnect, a mobile app for veterans and military service members in the state. IJF believes assisting veterans is a critical mission that cannot fail.

Tracey made 200 of her signature cupcakes for the various IJF organizations as a way of saying thank you. For Tracey that was probably easy. She already fed an army.

To view the original article:  please follow the link.

Holistic Approaches to Healing



In recent years, holistic wellness methods have seen growing popularity in the veteran service arena. Holistic wellness approaches physical, mental, and spiritual well-being from a natural healing perspective, as opposed to prescription medication. This can include healing touch, tai chi, yoga, meditation, diet, and nature therapy.


IJF member organizations Chicago Botanic Gardens and Thresholds have partnered to implement nature healing programs for veterans. These horticultural therapy programs leverage the soothing power of gardening to treat PTSD and other mental health issues. The effects have proven transformative for individual participants, and scientists have found that exposure to the outdoors increases serotonin and generates powerful spiritual development through giving back to Mother Nature.


Additionally, Chicago is a hotspot for urban farming, an approach that attempts to facilitate these same benefits right in our city. Recent summers have seen a spike in the number of urban farms throughout the city, with many popping up in underserved communities whose residents don’t have easy access to fresh produce. Some, such as Windy City Harvest or Wood Street Urban Farm in Englewood, offer pathways to employment for those struggling to obtain a steady income, as many veterans who come through IJF may be. Many urban farms also provide or partner with other organizations to teach participants tools for using produce in a cost-efficient and nutritious way.


These holistic approaches may seem outside the box, but veteran services have already started to realize their power. While VA medical centers are often thought to be grounded in more traditional healing approaches, the Jesse Brown VA is one example of a VA facility that has embraced holistic wellness through their Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatment clinic. Among other things, participants can grow vegetables in an on-site garden and turn them into wholesome, nutritious meals.


Do you think holistic wellness is a good strategy for veterans? What sorts of holistic wellness programs would you like to see offered through the VA? Let us know in the comments below!



See also:

By: Caitlin Hodes

Member Org Spotlight: Lewis University

IJF supports and uplifts our member organizations, and this includes highlighting the important and innovative work they are doing every day. We will be profiling member organizations on our blog through an ongoing series. We hope to inspire conversation and connection between member organizations, the communities they serve, and anyone else who is passionate about ensuring no veteran, service member or a family member falls through the cracks.

Lewis University is a non-profit Catholic University located in Romeoville. More than 553 Lewis University students are Active Duty, Reserve, Cadet, and Family Members using G.I. Bill benefits or Veterans. Many of the students of Lewis University participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. Funded through Lewis University and the Department of Veteran Affairs, this program provides 100 percent of student tuition expenses if they have 100 percent level of Post 9/11 entitlement. We recently spoke with Director of Veterans Affairs and Recruitment at Lewis University, Roman Ortega Jr., about how he works with student veterans to ensure success.

Tell us a little about yourself

I have been in the service for 18 years, served about 11 years on active duty in the U.S. Army and 7 in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Half of my time was in the infantry, and the other half was in military intelligence. I did deployment overseas in multiple capacities ranging from combat to humanitarian aid.

I got my master’s degree at Lewis University while on active duty in the U.S. Army.

 What is your philosophy behind how you provide services to students?

I try to focus on a wraparound service model: Social, Academic, Financial, Community, and Career. Many veterans transitioning out of the military want to go to school and then move back into careers. We have a team of 11 of us that strive to do the best in providing support during a potentially challenging transition.

What does wrap-around service model mean?

We help them with the most fundamental questions regarding admission and application process, we assist them to get registered, we enable access to benefits while in school. We also provide support through a student veteran group and a Vet Ally program which helps faculty and staff support veteran students. Then we empower them with employment opportunities to make sure they are set up for success upon graduation.

Can you tell us about any advantages student veterans have?

On average, student veterans tend to have a slightly higher graduation rate than civilians at Lewis. They tend to do well academically and in leadership roles at the University. The retention and persistence rate at Lewis University is over 80 percent for our student veterans, which is well above the national average for higher education. Their loan and debt rate are also very low which means they are graduating with less financial burden.

What about any unique challenges student veterans face?

We have student veterans who have families. They are typically married. They often have a part-time job or full-time job. They have got a lot to balance. They are very cognizant of their time, and what they are going to do with that time. Sometimes this equates to less participation in campus activities comparatively speaking to the traditional student. That is the biggest challenge.

Thank you to Roman Ortega for speaking with us! Check out Lewis University on their website, Facebook, or Twitter.







Hot Topics: Veteran Art Projects You Should Check Out

In our “Hot Topics” series, we aim to amplify veteran and military stories and trends in the news, whether these be heavily covered national issues or local stories. From topics such as changes in the Navy rating system to the growing trend of veteran owned breweries, the goal of this series is to spark conversation and awareness of military and veteran issues today.

Veterans and art. Think these two words don’t have much in common? Think again. This post is the first of a series about contemporary art projects relating to veterans. Stay tuned for more!

The Veteran Vision Project

The Veteran Vision Project is a photo essay by photographer Devin Mitchell. The photographs feature service members looking in the mirror. Sounds simple, right? The catch is that one of the images of the service member depicts them in their uniform, while in the other they are in civilian attire. Whether through a sari or a football uniform, an easel or a skateboard, or a break dancing pose, the image of the service member in civilian clothing showcases their personality quirks and hobbies.

Mitchell told Mic that he hopes these photographs help people “come away with a better understanding” of those who fight in America’s wars, and draw attention to the fact that veterans are individuals with a wide variety of interests and personalities.

Check out the Veteran Vision Project website to see the photographs.


source: Veteran Vision Project Facebook Page 

Member Org Spotlight: American Red Cross

IJF is committed to supporting and uplifting our member organizations, and this includes highlighting the important and innovative work they are doing every day. We will be profiling member organizations on our blog through an ongoing series. We hope to inspire conversation and connection between member organizations, the communities they serve, and anyone else who is passionate about ensuring no veteran, service member, or family member falls through the cracks.

The Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program supports military personnel, veterans, and their families. We sat down with Regional Director Hilary Duerksen to talk about their Reconnection Workshops and how what motivates Red Cross volunteers.

What are reconnection workshops?

Reconnection Workshops are a small group session where people talk about all sorts of things. Workshops focus on learning useful tools such as working through anger and effective coping mechanisms. In general, the topics focus on the transition out of the military to back home.

Who are these workshops meant for?

They are meant for people who are just back from deployment, veterans from all eras, their families and people who work with veterans.  We use a very ‘loose’ definition for family- if they are an important support for the veteran, then they count.  The workshops are very versatile.

Do you have any recent stories from a reconnection workshop that made you smile?

After a workshop in Peoria we got a call around midnight from one of the people who was in the session. That person said he didn’t feel suicidal, but he felt helpless and out of control. After the call, the veteran said he was feeling much better. He developed a plan to work through some of these issues, and is going to seek counseling.

So what would you say is one of the biggest benefits of these workshops?

The workshops help people build up the courage to pick up the phone and take that initial step to get help. They start conversations and they also help people realize who they can go to for larger needs.

How can people help out with these programs, do you take volunteers?

Yes! All of our programs rely on volunteers. Beginning very early of 2017 we will be training new facilitators for reconnection workshops. We are looking for licensed clinicians to volunteer. Email Hilary Duerksen if you are interested:

Do you have any veteran volunteers?

Many of our volunteers in all of our programs are veterans.

Why do you think that is?

I believe we have many veteran volunteers because they want to continue to serve.  That desire doesn’t end when they leave the military and the Red Cross is a recognized and universal place where they can continue to give back to their community. We also have a lot of volunteers who are not veterans, but who see volunteering with us as their way of serving their country.


Thank you so much to Hilary for chatting with us about Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces. Check out Red Cross Chicago on Facebook, Twitter, or their website. Check out the Military Family Services page here. 

Are you a member org that would like to take the spotlight on the IJF blog? Let’s chat! Email:















































Guest Post: From Boots to Books

Boots to Books

By Jorge Hernandez

From a Green Beret to an Air Bourne Ranger, North Central College in Naperville, Ill., has every branch of military service represented in its student body. And for a small, private liberal arts institution comprised of more than 2,800 undergraduate and graduate students, that’s saying something. For me it says that the College is a place where military students and veterans can successfully make the transition from “boots to books.”

I’ll admit that when I came to North Central College as an undergraduate student after serving in the U.S. Army, it was the picturesque campus, ease of transportation and variety of campus amenities that initially drew me in. What I have unexpectedly discovered is the deep sense of community here among students, staff and professors – particularly professors who are themselves veterans. I think that’s why the College in part has been recognized as a “Military- Friendly School” by G.I. Jobs Magazine, along with many other accolades and national rankings. North Central College is a place that allows me to live out my personal mission – to assist veterans and military-connected students’ transition from fighting wars to battling curricula. That’s why I’ve returned to the College to earn a master’s degree in liberal studies.

North Central College is also one of a few schools that turns Veterans Day into a full “appreciation week.” Campus activities include having lunch with the College president, initiating a “moment of silence” to remember those who’ve lost their lives in active duty, networking and social time, halftime recognition during a football game, free tickets to fine art performances and so much more. Many of these activities are coordinated by Julie Carballo, who coordinates veteran and military student services. She is someone with whom student-veterans can count on for consistent and unwavering support and guidance from the admission process to graduation.

We’re not just a number, as I’ve heard others say about their schools. There are a lot of combat vets at North Central College who understand one another and who are eager to meet with military students. I haven’t encountered the “angry veteran” stereotype here, and no one seems to feel weird about having me in class. Instead, I’ve been welcomed and encouraged to contribute as a leader – a message enhanced by alumni like John Stolze.

“Student-veterans need to understand that what they did in the military will enhance any business they work for …,” says Stolz, an alum of North Central College’s M.B.A. program who served for six years in the U.S. Navy. Stolz provides personal career counseling and, along with his wife, Karen, have established a veteran scholarship fund for students whose G.I. bill has expired.

Veterans’ accomplishments are celebrated at the College’s annual Hail & Farewell Banquet. This past spring, Stolz gave each graduating veteran a challenge coin, which is a military tradition. “These are inscribed with three words: honor, commitment and courage. If one lives by these words across their career, they cannot help but be successful,” he said.

North Central College recognizes the significant value that student-veterans bring to campus. Whether it’s participation in the SALUTE national honor society or accessing resources provided by the College’s Center for Academic Success, student veterans at North Central College gain not only the valuable tools for a successful educational experience but also skills for life.

About the author:
After serving in the U.S. Army from 2012-2015 as an artillery man,  Jorge Hernandez enrolled in North Central College’s specialized Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program where his concentration is Culture & Society.  Jorge recently started a full-time position as a Workforce Development specialist with DuPage County, focusing on veterans and youth. He will graduate with his Masters degree in June 2017.
Jorge is the Student Veteran representative on the national NASPA Veterans Knowledge Community and he is Vice President of North Central College’s Student Veterans Alliance. 

Member Org Spotlight: National Able Network Part 2

IJF is committed to supporting and uplifting our member organizations, and this includes highlighting the important and innovative work they are doing every day. We will be profiling member organizations on our blog through an ongoing series. We hope to inspire conversation and connection between member organizations, the communities they serve, and anyone else who is passionate about ensuring no veteran, service member, or family member falls through the cracks.

National Able Network is a 501c3 nonprofit based in Chicago that helps job seekers secure employment. Veterans Forward is National Able’s veteran focused career development program which provides career coaching and connections to employers. All career coaches at Veterans Forward are veterans themselves. We recently sat down with one of their career coaches, Kat Schaeffer, and had such a fruitful conversation we decided to publish a part two. Enjoy!

What advice do you have for someone serving veterans who is not a veteran themselves?

Even if you are not from the military community, it is about learning to understand their experience. It is about still having a commonality with them, and not allowing your lack of experience in that area to be a barrier to your ability to help them. If that lack of experience is so intimidating to one person or another in the relationship, that makes it really difficult for any progress to be made.

 How do you encourage people to think positively throughout the job search?

Inherently, a job search is something you fail at until you succeed. It can be a very demeaning experience to fail over and over and over again. Talking about my past, like interviews I have completely bombed, helps the clients feel a little less intimidated.

So everyone thinks their struggle in the job search is unique, but really it isn’t?

Yes. People will wonder, “why is it so much harder for me to find a job than everyone else, I’ve been looking for four months and still haven’t found anything.” Well we have to tell them the average person spends seven months looking for a job. A job search is tough, the thing that makes it easier is having the right information, knowing the job market, and knowing the best practices for an efficient and effective job search. That information is not as readily available as it should be. That is what we are here for, to teach our clients how to navigate the job market.

What made you smile in the last month or so?

We had a client who came in and just devoured all of the advice we gave her. She had no job. But she started networking, fixed her LinkedIn profile, targeted her resumes, found a job and was out the door in three weeks.

What sort of attitudes and behaviors allow clients to be most successful finding a job?

This client wasn’t any more capable at conducting a job search than anyone else, she was just more willing to learn the material. It is exciting to us when we see clients that are just ready to come in with open ears and take our advice and roll with it. When they do, it tends to work really well.

Thank you to Kat for chatting with us! Check National Able Network out on their website, on Facebook, or on Twitter

Are you a member org that would like to take the spotlight on the IJF blog? Let’s chat! Email



Introducing: VetQnect

Illinois Joining Forces (IJF) is excited to announce the launch of VetQnect, the first mobile app for veterans and military service members in the state.

vetqnectVetQnect is designed to be a trusted peer network for service members, veterans and their families looking to connect and share resources on benefits, job opportunities and various events throughout Illinois.

According to IJF Executive Director Ken Barber, the VetQnect app will serve as an extension of the ongoing efforts to help service members, veterans, and families navigate resources available in Illinois. “Helping Illinois veterans feel connected to a community of like-minded individuals that know the challenges of veteran transition is critical,” Barber said.

VetQnect offers a seamless way for veterans to quickly connect. The app features:

  •  Question and answer threads.
  • Ability to invite other veterans and military to the community.
  • Direct messaging among users.
  • Topic threads by hashtag.
  • Access to events and resources from Illinois Joining Forces.

The app is free and available for both Android and IPhone users. Download it today for iPhone or Android, and become part of the conversation!