Library Gateways to the VA is an outreach project that partnered the White River Junction VA with over 255 service area public libraries in Vermont and western New Hampshire. The public libraries were given folders containing information about the VA and VA benefits. Posters for display were also created and provided to each institution, guiding veteran patrons to library staff in order to request an informational folder.
The origins of this project
Late in 2019, a discussion took place at a VA Veterans Town Hall Meeting in northern Vermont. The focus of the discussion centered around the fact that there are veterans throughout the area who were not availing themselves of VA benefits, and in some cases, are not even aware of them. One of the veterans in attendance at the meeting came up with the initial concept for the project. Since public libraries frequently serve as community gathering places, it is possible that a veteran who has never received VA health care or other benefits might already be a public library user.
Dr. Brett Rusch, the White River Junction facility director, who was in attendance at the meeting, took the comments seriously. Shortly after the veteran gathering, we met, and he outlined the problem at hand. As a clinical librarian, I am accustomed to doing outreach to different clinical departments and groups throughout the medical cCenter, but this was looking to be a unique endeavor.
Working with our Public Affairs Office and with the help of a VA digital designer, we put together brochures as well as a poster. The poster was intended to direct any interested veteran to public library staff, who would then provide them with a packet. Our intent was to make this as simple and low-impact as possible for busy public librarians. Some of the information in the packet was specifically constructed by White River Junction VA staff, containing phone numbers and emails that could then direct a veteran to someone local. Minimal frustration for the veteran in addition to the public library staff was a project goal, in order to ensure buy-in.
The next step in the process involved contacting the Vermont and New Hampshire State Libraries and outlining the project to them. Both institutions were very willing to help, both by spreading the word and also by enabling us to send some of the items via the Statewide Courier vans, which transport ILL items and other materials. As a result of connections made with the state libraries, I was able to participate in the Zoom meetings of various consortia and also on a Vermont State Library Continuing Education call, and outline the project to call participants.
In addition to the brochure, other items in each packet included items on suicide prevention, a VA New England benefits booklet, information on VA telehealth, a specially-created brochure providing information about VA eligibility, and many other items. In fact, at one point it became necessary to scale back the amount of material in each folder, since they sometimes need to be mailed to public libraries.
The universal setback
As of late February 2020, we had worked out many of the logistical kinks and were ready to begin. Trials of the project had taken place at three New Hampshire and three Vermont libraries, and valuable feedback had been received. A few weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic, which upended life everywhere and also temporarily closed area library buildings, certainly impacted the project. But I decided to continue along and do anything that could be done safely. During the next few months, I shifted my focus to collating folders when I could, and by late summer, over 1,300 folders had been collated, ready for distribution.
Finally, phone contact was initiated with every public library in the White River Junction service area. Either a detailed voicemail was left, or a direct contact was made, and the project was described, enabling librarians to be aware that these materials would be arriving soon. Something that made these calls special was that they were from a librarian to other librarians. I was able to hear lots of stories about veteran family members and friends in their own lives. Overall, library staff were not only willing to distribute the folders and display the posters; offers were made to distribute additional materials in other areas in their municipalities, or to offer packets to veterans that they knew. Follow-up calls to each of the libraries further ensured that materials had been received.
By late May of 2021, when the last of the calls had been made and the last of the materials had been distributed, vaccine distribution was more widespread, and public libraries began slowly reopening their buildings little by little, and they all had the materials for the project.
Since then, every few months, I send a follow-up email to the public librarians asking if they need additional materials and whether they have any questions. I can then replenish their supply of folders and posters.
A few final items come to mind that are worth mentioning. We wrote and created a free public service announcement with the assistance of a White River Junction staff member who had years of radio announcing experience, including a stint in Armed Forces Radio. The MP3 was then emailed to about 35 radio stations in our area, and I have had the opportunity to hear the PSA played while driving to and from work, which has been fun. In fact, a veteran at my local town library heard the radio ad and asked for a packet while I was browsing in the library as a patron.
Also, a couple of the libraries have reached out and have been connected with White River Junction VA staff who are going to serve as speakers or panelists for specific library programs. And finally, this outreach initiative has sparked another initiative, which involves the including of a veterans telehealth space in the newly-constructed South Burlington, Vermont Public Library. Grant funding was obtained through the NNLM, Region 7 for this project, systems are being put in place, and telehealth will be available in the space beginning May 16, 2022.