Orrin Gorman McClellan, at age 21, returned from Afghanistan to his home on Whidbey Island in 2006, after serving three years in the Army. Plagued by PTSD and pervasive trauma related problems, McClellan needed to travel for any help to Seattle, the nearest Veterans Administration facility. It was a trip he hated.
“Orrin wanted support and help at home, in his own community,” his mother Judith Gorman said. “There was none. ‘Start something, mom. Here,’ he told us. That was our motivation. His pain.”
In the months following McClellan’s return, while his parents and friends worked to help him through the process of adjusting to civilian life, Gorman and Orrin’s father, Perry McClellan, began exploring their son’s wish for a support space on Whidbey.
“Orrin wanted an alcohol-free social center for himself and other returning veterans,” Gorman said. “He hung out at the pool hall in Freeland with several older veterans and wanted writing groups. And it was obvious all of them wanted information and services related to VA applications for disability and services, and local support groups for veterans — men and women — for connecting and networking.”
In 2009, McClellan’s parents, with the help and support of numerous local veterans and supportive civilians, established a local veterans resource center with these services in mind, getting grants and eventually receiving 501c3 status. They found a small space and relocated a few times, with all services provided by volunteers, offering support groups and help accessing veterans benefits.
And while those services continued to expand, it wasn’t soon enough for Orrin McClellan. He died by suicide in May, 2010.
“Our son is the beginning of the WVRC history, the stimulus and the guiding light, and it was likely his death that spurred others to step forward,” Gorman said.
Funding, outreach next WVRC initiatives
Vietnam veteran Clayton Canfield is the current president of the Whidbey Veteran Resource Center, or WVRC, and he and others involved are optimistic about the potential for the organization’s growth and sustainability.
“Things are gaining momentum,” Canfield said.
Weekly support groups now include one for women and one for men, as well as a monthly group for all vets. A Veterans Service Officer provides assistance once a week on applying for benefits (“It’s pretty tricky,” Canfield said.) A VA PTSD counselor will offer mental health counseling. Island Transit has loaned a surplus van for transportation to the Seattle VA hospital.
And the WVRC recently moved to the Community Center in the former Langley Middle School building.
“There’s more exposure there, and a synergy with other groups in the building,” Canfield said. “It’s on a bus line, making it easier for vets without transportation, plus it can attract walk-in traffic.”
New volunteers have also come forward. Dana Sawyers, coordinator for Island County Veterans Services, has joined the board of the Whidbey VRC, Canfield said.
“She’s a one-person marketing program,” he said. Sawyers has worked on a veterans picnic and a Vietnam vets group. “She’s infused new energy into the organization.”
Funding opportunities have also increased. A large number of Whidbey churches donated the collections on a recent Sunday to the WVRC. A matching grant of up to $10,000 is being offered by Lucas Jushinski, owner of Island Herb and himself a veteran.
“We have pledges already for $4,000,” said board member Fred McCarthy, who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1967-68.
And this weekend, April 20-21, two benefit concerts will be held at Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Freeland. The cabaret, directed by Ken Merrill, features songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook. Requested donations of $20 will go toward the matching grant from Island Herb.
Outreach to more veterans is the next challenge for the Resource Center. One effort is a newsletter to acquaint veterans and other islanders with the center’s goals and services. Whidbey Island has a high percentage of veterans, the WVRC notes, and the newsletter has been sent to 2,000 addresses.
“But we see very few veterans from recent conflicts,” Canfield said. “Younger vets don’t seem to want to get involved. They’re deployed four or five times and need some assistance coming out. But by that time they’re not interested in anything military.”
“We’ve struggled to get the word out,” McCarthy said. “Our challenge is to reach out to the younger vets who may need the resources of our organization.”
The Whidbey Veterans Resource Center is at South Whidbey Community Center, 723 Camano Avenue, Room 403 Bldg. C, Langley. More information is available by calling 360-331-8081; email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.whidbeyvrc.org.
Yes I Can! Yes I Can! Yes I Can!
A benefit concert for the Whidbey Veterans Resource Center
A Cabaret with Whidbey stars performing songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook
Directed by Ken Merrill, with music direction by Eileen Soskin
Friday-Saturday, “April 20-21, 7:30 p.m.
Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 20103 State Route 525, Freeland