Busy St. Mike’s student veterans reeling off successes

February 9, 2017

A success beyond expectations this year for the busy Saint Michael’s College Student Veterans of America (SVA) chapter is the growing campus group of “Project Healing Waters,” a national enterprise that helps veterans build community and feel supported through fly-tying and fishing.

Leading that growth has been Marine combat veteran Chris Boutin of Milton, a full-time student and married father of twins.  Every first and third Saturday since November he has squeezed into the Ross Sports Center Hall of Fame Room with other local veterans, students, interested outside-community members and instructor Brother Frank Hagerty of the campus Edmundite community. Together, they learn and practice fly-tying. Just as importantly, they make friends and relax in a supportive environment.

Soon, the campus Fly Fishing Club will become an official sponsoring partner of the growing group, Boutin, said — and that’s a big deal. “We’ve been working with the campus club and are in the process of making it official that they would become our parent club for Project Healing Waters because it can’t be a stand-alone association doing something like this on campus,” he explained. “We’d be the first college in the country to host a Project Healing Waters group like this.”

The Project Healing Waters regional coordinator in Maine has informed Boutin that the Saint Michael’s group is “the largest and fastest-growing group in New England because we have this place to call our home right now with consistency,” Boutin said. “The news gets passed up the Healing Waters chain through him to the national director,” Boutin said. “He lets him know we’re doing amazing things, and the word is that what we’re doing has been shared with General Joseph Dunford (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a member of the Saint Michael’s Class of 1977), who is up-to-date on this project and very supportive.”

“We’ve been getting quite a few veterans for our Saturday morning meetings,” Boutin said — “maybe 13 or so regulars, along with five or six volunteers from the community, Brother Frank, and there also have had between two to seven Saint Michael’s students at a time showing up.”

The plan is to wrap up those indoor sessions about April “and then we can get out and go fishing – we’re going to host some casting lessons and then I’m planning trip to New Hampshire for the group,” he said. “We’re going to do some coordinated trips with the rest of the New England affiliates.” Other regional groups include one in Southern Vermont, three in Maine, plus four or five apiece in Massachusetts and Connecticut. But so far,  the St. Mike’s group is the only one that is college–based.

“Other colleges have heard about it now, however – it’s something they never thought of doing,” Boutin said, adding that Ken O’Connell, coordinator of Student Veteran Services for Saint Michael’s, has attended some national SVA events and told advisers at other chapters about it. “They like that we’re integrating college students – it’s a great mixer of the younger generation with older vets for both groups.”

Another activity: Veterans Stand-Down

Besides the growth of Project Healing Waters, the Saint Michael’s SVA chapter is supporting preparations for a coming event on April 8 in South Burlington called The “Veterans Stand Down.” St. Mike’s members are assembling “care packages” of personal toiletries, and also inviting any interested members of the group or community to volunteer services or resources.

An initiative of the Department of Veterans Affairs South Burlington Vet Center at 19 Gregory Drive, Suite 201 in Burlington, this “Stand Down” is “a day when Veterans Service Organizations and a community come together to serve and offer hope, services, counseling, food supplies and a lifeline to veterans living without or in need,” explains a press release from Allston “Joe” Gilmond, veterans outreach Specialist at the South Burlington Center, who invited the Saint Mike’s SVA and other local groups to get involved.  Says Ken O’Connell, “If from campus anybody would like to volunteer skills to this event, we’d be glad to make the connection.”

Boutin said the group will use its Military Community Assistance Fund (MCAF) to provide the donated care packages that contain personal care items – toothpaste, deodorant, soap, small bandages and such. “We’d like to get the word out that we’re now collecting things for these toiletry bags for homeless vets —  and it was recommended to us we put it in one-gallon Ziploc bag because they have multiple uses for the homeless since once the supplies are used up, they can use the bags to keep other things dry.”

The Stand Down is funded through government grant in order to provide a “one-day, one-stop shop,” for homeless veterans, Boutin said, explaining that “they are provided with medical and dental care, enrollment in the VA, provided with place to take shower, wash clothes, get haircuts, have some meals –and any homeless vet who wants to get off street, they will do what can to get them in housing, and if they choose to continue on street, we’ll do what can to make it safe.”

Boutin said the VA estimates Vermont has perhaps 125 homeless veterans, though it’s hard to get accurate numbers. VA contract employees funded by grants sometimes walk the streets and interview the homeless to get those numbers, he said.

Besides helping the Stand Down, St. Mike’s SVA chapter has sent several personal-care-item packages this year as well to deployed Saint Michael’s students and staff this year. Boutin says one staff member and one student were part of the recent Air Guard Deployment to the Mideast. Also, the MCAF also always is prepared to provide similar care packages for residents of the Homeless Veterans House on West Canal Street in Winooski.

The fund was launched last year on Veterans Day with an original goal of $2,000, but “through supply donations and money we nearly doubled our goal,” he said. Any veterans in the community also can apply through Vermont Veteran Outreach Program if need assistance with any bills or food, up to $200 per year per veteran each year, through the fund, he said.

November’s Veterans Day Stewardship Event Went Well

Another successful initiative and activity for the Saint Michael’s SVA chapter this past November was a Veterans Day Stewardship Event that was a huge success, with many alumni and local veterans attending a gathering in Dion Student Center alongside the military Community of Saint Michael’s and many College administrators and professors. “Our members did a gallery presentation with displays from our students about military history at Saint Michael’s, ROTC, or local nearby guard bases since we’ve been doing more outreach there – we also had speeches and food and good conversations,” he said. SVA hopes to make that an annual event, possibly expanding it to be day-long instead of just an evening during the week of Veterans Day, and bringing in more good speakers.

Boutin said since November the small Saint Michael’s SVA group of about 15 members has grown by four members. “We’re kind of aging out, with mostly juniors and seniors in group right now,” Boutin said, “but we now have one first-year in ROTC and he brought in two friends who have no other formal connection to the military but just want to support veterans,” which the group encourages. “It’s for anybody who’s hoping to help make a difference here in the community for the veteran population,” he said.

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