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Give an Hour: Helping Veterans Cope with the Psychic Toll of War

Barbara Van Dahlen
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Malek Naz Freidouni

The nonprofit provides treatment for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, anger management, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, sexual health and intimacy issues, family problems, and loss and grieving. Relatives are also eligible for assistance. "We define 'family' as any person who loves someone affected by the wars," Barbara says, which includes unmarried life partners and close friends. "I'm especially concerned about the children and younger siblings of the veterans, knowing how the effects of trauma can trickle down within families," she explains. "An angry or withdrawn member of the household affects everyone."

Now over 5,000 licensed mental health professionals representing all 50 states have registered to participate, each person donating an hour a week. Clients use a zip code finder on the Web site to locate providers in their area, choosing from particular specialties, such as marital counseling or PTSD. Or they can answer a brief questionnaire that will guide them to the right service. The therapists determine how often they see a client and for how many sessions, with no restrictions on length of treatment. Volunteer therapists are required to commit to one year but most stay longer.

To expand services and get the word out, GAH now has a staff doing outreach, consulting with other nonprofits and providing educational programs. It has teamed up with Big Brothers Big Sisters to provide counselors for kids who have a parent currently deployed, and with AARP to recruit seniors to assist military families. This fall it also launched Community Blueprint, which helps local leaders develop ongoing support for military families.

Barbara relies on several corporate sponsors, gifts from individual donors, grants, and small fundraisers to meet expenses like printing brochures for marketing. Her favorite fundraiser is Swim for the Troops, because her daughters, both competitive swimmers, have helped organize it for the past four years. Last July nearly 100 children—many of them Gracie's and Mira's friends—participated, raising almost $1,500. "It's important that we all help military families," Gracie says. "Thanks to my mom, I'm aware of what our soldiers do and how much they give. I want to make sure that people are thankful for that." Barbara met her husband, Randy Phelps, PhD, through Give an Hour—he is a deputy executive director at the American Psychological Association. "Give an Hour is a family passion for us," says Barbara. "My girls are both very proud to help, whether it's stuffing envelopes or organizing the swim meet."

As GAH evolves, Barbara hopes they will continue consulting with the government to improve mental health services to veterans. Last year Barbara was invited to the White House to speak about the subject. She also gave a presentation to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. "We want it to be automatic that our military men and women come home and get the right kind of support; it shouldn't be a stigmatized endeavor," she says. "By accepting help, they can really change the way our culture views the mental health consequences of war. If we all give a little bit, we can do a lot."

Volunteers wanted: Licensed mental health professionals can sign up to become providers at giveanhour.org. Give an Hour also needs support—including financial—in other areas, like outreach, education, marketing/public relations, and administration; e-mail info@giveanhour.org to learn more.