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Welcome Wagon Program aims to pair county veterans with returning soldiers

Published: Friday, July 19, 2013 10:29 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, July 19, 2013 11:40 p.m. CDT

McHENRY – Veterans and community leaders gathered this week at the McHenry Veterans of Foreign Wars to discuss implementing a program that would pair veterans with soldiers returning from war.

The Welcome Wagon Program has been in place for a year and a half in Naperville, providing returning veterans with an older veteran who can help them navigate Veterans Affairs benefits, find employment and establish a mentor relationship.

“When [veterans] come back … we’re going to celebrate their return,” said Jack Amberg, founder of the Welcome Wagon Program. “It’s sitting them down after that, getting them to the resources and then the [veteran mentor] has to be there.”

Amberg said 49 percent of returning veterans admit their transition into civilian life isn’t going well, according to a 2009 report from Civic Enterprises, and McHenry County’s current veterans can provide a needed physical and emotional support system.

Returning veterans often are overwhelmed with decision-making, Amberg said, because most of their decisions were made for them on their base. The older veteran acts as a friend and motivator to push the returning veteran to take advantage of available programs and resources.

Thursday’s meeting was spearheaded by the McHenry County Community Foundation, which is interested in supporting the program locally if it requires financial assistance.

“One of the things we do a lot in the county is handing off,” said Robin Doeden, president of the community foundation. “Go talk to Joe at this agency or go talk to Mary at this agency. No one follows up on them to make sure they actually do it. This mentor is going to be the person who is going to hold them accountable.”

Doeden said Thursday’s meeting was designed to introduce the idea of the program and gauge veteran interest. She said that ideally the program would begin in the fall.

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