When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in early 2020 and shut many things down, CalVet stepped up.
When other offices stopped answering their phones or were unable to reply, CalVet picked up.
When military bases, college campuses, and other community-based points of connection closed, CalVet booted up and took vital information right into the veterans’ homes via webinars.
Clearly, while the pandemic altered the way we all live and work, it didn’t change the needs of California’s 1.6 million veterans nor those about to join them as they prepared to leave the military. In fact, they needed help and services perhaps more than ever during a time of personal and public health risks, job layoffs, and other uncertainties.
CalVet quickly adapted to keep them connected, especially, through outreach programs like the California Transition Assistance Program (CalTAP).
“Our CalTAP staff successfully pivoted during the early weeks of the pandemic by creating and hosting virtual informational sessions and webinars at an astounding pace,” said Keith Boylan, deputy secretary of the Veterans Services Division. “I believe it made a difference in veterans’ lives and demonstrated what this team is capable of.”
Like other government agencies, CalVet headquarters in Sacramento closed to public access in March 2020 and employees began working remotely. Calls to headquarters immediately began rolling over to CalVet’s eight Local Interagency Network Coordinators (LINCs) throughout the state, enabling callers to speak with a CalVet representative directly during normal business hours. That helped individual veterans get answers. Reaching the masses, however, required a more high-tech approach.
CalTAP helps veterans and their families connect with the community-based system of care across all segments of the veteran life cycle. When the bases and campuses closed, CalTAP quickly transitioned from in-person – their primary method of outreach – to online webinars. In doing so, CalVet maintained the access to outreach, County Veterans Service Offices, and the ability to make general inquiries that veterans and their families rely upon. Additionally, the department opened its virtual platform to trusted community partners that were struggling to maintain service levels.
First, a bit of background about CalTAP:
Created in 2017, CalTAP sought to connect with veterans far upstream from the normal contact period that’s done after separation from the military, and link them to benefits specifically available to California veterans. The program debuted with a presentation at Ventura College in August 2017 and made its first base appearance at Camp Pendleton in June 2018.
CalTAP now operates on 26 of California’s military installations and 31 institutions of higher learning. During those first two years, CalTAP hosted or participated in scores of events—all in person. Then COVID-19 stopped everything in its tracks in March 2020. With a limited staff and zero experience in remote learning, CalTAP quickly refocused.
“It took us a month,” said Josh Zebley, Marine Corps veteran and CalTAP’s section chief for training and evaluations. They mapped out a game plan that involved bringing in experts from outside agencies and stakeholders, in addition to CalTAP staff. The first two webinars, featuring Employment Development Department specialists, drew 150 and 178 participants, respectively. “People were being laid off. They definitely needed information.”
They followed with three consecutive webinars involving mental health, addiction and suicide prevention, and legal aid for veterans. Suddenly, the webinar became their lifeblood for reaching veterans and their families.
“Webinars allowed us to expand our audience when we couldn’t travel,” said Jamie Jones, CalVet’s chief of Veterans and Community Engagement.
Granted, webinars have existed for years. In CalVet’s case, necessity was the mother of adaptivity rather than invention. Since launching that first one in April 2020, CalTAP has offered more than 470 virtual events that have drawn roughly 16,000 participants.
Staff has learned something from every webinar. Each live webinar includes an opportunity for the veterans to interact with the subject matter experts by asking questions for all to hear, or submitting questions that can be answered offline. And many of them are recorded and available on CalVet’s YouTube channel for those who were unable to participate during the live event.
CalTAP staff also recognized the need to focus each webinar on a single topic. Staff learned that some older veterans don’t understand the benefits available to them.
“We wanted to eliminate the barriers to care,” Jones said. “The first elderly vets webinar, we had 120 people participate.”
The early returns showed that CalTAP had tapped into something that would only get bigger and better.
“We started advertising on a large scale and covering crucial resources to all at this very scary time of uncertainty,” said Jennifer Rudquist, Air Force veteran and CalTAP’s training coordinator.
Today, CalTAP provides veterans and their families with the full scope of education and training to meet their needs, such as job assistance and Employment Development Department resources, mental health and suicide prevention, educational opportunities, emergency preparedness, help for aging adults, benefits and resources to aid retired veterans, information about presumptive diseases and conditions, resources for women veterans, and starting a business.
They work with stakeholders such as non-profits like USVETS and Swords to Plowshares and various other government and non-government entities.
“We highlight and partner with other divisions in CalVet such as CalVet (Veterans) Homes, CalVet Home Loans, CalVet (Veterans Memorials and) Cemeteries, regional offices, and other nongovernmental organizations that participate and help make our events meaningful to veterans and their families,” Rudquist said.
Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, showing the importance of connecting veterans and their families with their community-based systems of care.
“They have already helped me with one of these webinars,” one wrote. “During the webinar, I was able to connect with the host and she helped me get in contact with someone to help me with my claim.”
Another, after participating in a College Tuition Fee Waiver webinar in February, wrote: “My daughter will start attending Cal State San Marcos in the fall of 2022. … I plan on submitting the appropriate documentation for the CalVet Tuition (Fee Waiver) Program as soon as the timeframe begins. …”
In fact, a webinar on the dependents’ College Tuition Fee Waiver became the largest to date, with more than 241 viewers. Three separate webinars on topics affecting elderly veterans collectively drew over 500.
While CalTAP has resumed in-person events at military installations, colleges, and other community-based points of connection, the webinars will remain a key resource for reaching service members, veterans, and their families.
Indeed, when the pandemic clamped down, CalVet stepped up and booted up, and the results have been impressive.
Visit bit.ly/3WlLC5K to find upcoming events. Previous webinars can also be found on CalTAP’s web page by visiting bit.ly/3j7VnWT. To view a webinar on elder care services for veterans, and others on YouTube, visit bit.ly/3hEGfjg.