By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
The Texas Veterans Commission recently awarded $2.3 million in grants to Texas veterans aid groups, funded primarily by revenue from Veterans Cash scratch-off lottery tickets.
Twelve organizations received grants. The groups that function within Central Texas offer educational enrichment opportunities, equine therapy, affordable transportation and emergency medical and dental coverage to veterans and their families.
The largest grant to a Central Texas-specific organization, $120,000, went to Girlstart in Killeen. The Girlstart program provides science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) enrichment to girls between the ages of 7 and 17, targeting girls in fourth- through eighth-grade, in the form of week-long summer and weekend retreats. Through the grant, which is about one-sixth of the organization's total budget, Girlstart will be able to reach more than 500 area daughters of active-duty military personnel or veterans, said Executive Director Tamara Hudgins.
"It was obvious to us that girls in Killeen would benefit from this program," Hudgins said. "We're really thrilled to be able to do this."
Many girls across Killeen have parents working in STEM-oriented careers, due to Fort Hood, Hudgins said, but they might not know it. Parents may not communicate details of what they do at work because of its often technical and stressful nature, she said.
"If girls bring to the dinner table, 'Hey, I built a rocket,' and, chances are, the mom or dad at the dinner table works with rockets or propulsion," Hudgins said, "parents may realize, 'Hey, I actually have something in my job that can enrich my relationship with my daughter.'"
About 45 organizations competed for a part of the grant package, according to Lisa Waddell, Texas Veterans Commission spokesperson. A volunteer board, composed of veterans, business owners and other citizens assessed grant proposals by impact and feasibility, she said.
"They're trying to address the biggest needs," Waddell said.
Over 200,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars live in Texas, according to James Richman, interim executive director of the commission.
"They, and all Texas veterans, have a paid a high price for serving our country."
Since the Veterans Cash game's introduction in November 2009, over $6 million has been generated from the $2 tickets for the commission's Fund for Veteran's Assistance. Over a third of that money funded the grant package announced to the public in early September. Recipients were notified last spring.
Horses for Heroes
The Ride on Center for Kids in Georgetown also received $40,259 for its Horses for Heroes program, or equine-assisted therapy for veterans. Ride on Center hosted a pilot program for Heroes in 2005, and now 50 similar programs exist nationally, said grant manager Stephanie Sheppard.
"It's a big program, and it's getting bigger," she said, citing research that equine therapy strengthens the core muscles and may rewire the brains of veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury, among other ailments. "The partnership with the horse is truly an amazing kind of experience to have."
The balance and sensory integration parts of the therapy are especially helpful for those veterans with artificial limbs.
The grant will allow 15 veterans of any war, and five of those veterans' families to receive 12 weeks of free equine therapy, according to Sheppard. Veterans must receive a referral from their physician or psychiatrist to be eligible for services, which typically cost $150 per hour.
Family counseling is also a unique opportunity for families, she said.
"A lot of people have had therapy so much that they don't want to think about any more counseling," she said. "This is a completely different way for them to have family counseling. They're not sitting on a couch talking."
A third area grant recipient offers veterans of all wars who live in Burnet, Lampasas and Llano counties free rides to doctors' appointments and other errands in and out of town.
VetRides received $90,230 from the commission to develop and expand its program, which has been operating for two months and offers two to three rides per day to places as far north as Waco and as far south as San Antonio, according to founder Chuck Caraway.
"It's whatever they have to do," said Caraway, a Burnet County veterans services officer. "We give rides to the grocery store and pharmacies and VFW meetings and the American legion, too."
Veterans spouses and widows and widowers may take rides as well, he said, adding that deceased veterans' spouses receive far less financial consideration from the government than veterans themselves, "even though they put up with the veteran all those years."
The grant will allow the organization to lease two wheelchair-accessible vans for one year to expand service, he said, though Caraway said leasing a van for one year only has proven difficult, as dealerships normally require a two-year lease. He hopes to a find a private citizen who will lease him the vans for one year, as per his grant specifications.
The state-wide Texas National Guard was received a $160,000 grant for Operation Urgent Care, which provides emergency or "gap" health and dental insurance for underemployed or unemployed Texas National Guard service members. It includes co-pay coverage.
Veterans services organizations in El Paso, Dallas, San Antonio and other regions were also awarded grants, several of which focused on homeless and female veterans, according to Waddell, who called those groups "underserved." Grants will not automatically be renewed each year, she said, and organizations will have to reapply and compete with other organizations.
Due to the success of the Veterans Cash lottery, however, the commission will be awarding large grant packages annually for the foreseeable future, she said. Revenue from the game will total about $8 million this year.
For more information about the Texas Veterans Commission Fund for Veterans' Assistance, go to http://www.tvc.state.tx.us/about/fund-for-veterans-assistance. To learn more about Girlstart, go to girlstart.org or call (512) 916-4775. For more information on Ride on Center for Kids' Horses for Heroes program, go to rockride-org.doodlekit.com/home/horses_for_heroes or call (512) 930-7625. For more information on VetRides, contact (877) 851-8838. Texas National Guard members interested in Operation Urgent Care should contact their units.