El Cajon Branch Library opens first expanded San Diego County veterans’ services office hours
On March 11, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously, 4-0, directing the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to continue support for expanding county library locations for veterans’ services programs and to identify eligible local volunteers to assist the veterans during the new library service hours.
The first official county veterans’ service office hours were held on March 24 at the El Cajon Library. Juan Rangel is the accredited veteran service representative manning the library office hours, currently scheduled for two half-day sessions each month at that location. Rangel is a veteran who served for eight years in the Navy during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He expects to offer other available appointment hours if requests for the services increase. Rangel also provided his expertise as part of a county-directed pilot study of the program’s feasibility, which began in February at the El Cajon Library.
“This is a good start, but we’re not done and there is more work to do,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “There will be several additional locations.”
Prior to use of County Library branches for veterans’ services programs, County Veterans Services Officers (CVSOs) provided the services at nine locations.
Jacob had been asked why no CVSO locations were in East County. The question resulted in her efforts to increase the number of locations that would be more accessible for veterans living in remote areas of San Diego County.
San Diego County is home to more than 240,000 veterans, which is the second-largest population in the state and the third largest in the nation. The county established the Veterans Services Office to assist veterans in obtaining local, state, and federal benefits to which they are legally entitled. Services offered include benefits counseling, claims preparation and submission, claims follow-up, appeals, and advocacy with other veterans services organizations throughout the United States. CVSOs meet individually with veterans to provide the services.
James Alexander is the service officer for El Cajon American Legion Post 303. He believes that the expanded CVSO counseling and assistance at the local library is “a really good resource.” He has been providing much service to East County veterans with disability claims and allowance toward assisted living to reimburse the veterans themselves and their spouses. Alexander praises the greater convenience of access to benefits claims and filing assistance at the El Cajon Library, saying, “It’s good that it’s local.”
Rangel described the veterans who have made inquiries at the East County library hours as “older,” coming from military service during World War II, the Korean War, and “lots of veterans from the Vietnam War.” He expects younger veterans to be asking for services soon, as more of them separate from military service. He has provided assistance at the El Cajon Library to several veterans in filing claims for benefits, including pensions, pre-need burial benefits, and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children of veterans.
Dr. Tom Splitgerber, who heads the county’s Veterans Service Office, described how the process unfolded. He was tasked with inquiries about finding East County locations, including libraries, that would be capable of providing quality services to veterans. After exploring the possibilities at several sites, he and his advisors concluded that the El Cajon Library was the best location for studying and initiating the program. He further said that this particular East County site offers privacy for veterans in benefits claims counseling, and that the location can facilitate participation of active local volunteers from El Cajon. He observed that the effectiveness of the program at this East County location will factor into decisions about expansion of the services to other areas in San Diego County, as will availability of continued state funding.
County Library Director Jose Aponte expects veterans’ services programs at the Julian, Pine Valley, and Ramona libraries to be implemented within the next year. “The particulars are really with the service providers,” he said.
Hildie Kraus, branch director at the El Cajon County Library, is pleased with the program.
“We are very happy to host the veterans’ service office at the El Cajon Library. There are many veterans and active-duty military in our area,” she said. “I personally recommended two individuals to the service, both Navy veterans in their 90s. They were very grateful to have this resource accessible to them. We are very happy to include veterans in the services we provide to honor the sacrifices military personnel have made. I feel very, very strongly about this.”
Rangel said, it side with the veterans in their claims and wants them to know they are available. “The older veterans are getting sick, and they need to know we can help with pensions and benefits,” he said. “Veterans aren’t alone. These are benefits they fought hard to get. Sometimes males think they are indestructible, especially if they are healthy now. But they need to think about their families and how the family suffers when the veteran is not prepared with the benefits he’s earned.”
Splitgerber envisions enlisting trained volunteers in preparing paperwork for one-stop appointment assistance from an accredited CVSO, as well as adopting the model of easy-use library kiosks for filing preliminary benefit claims and the possible use of computer kiosks for face-to-face communications links from remote areas to the county’s central offices. “The real key is getting the word out,” said Splitgerber.
Aponte noted the importance of volunteers in implementing county library programs such as the expanded veterans’ services sessions.
“We only have 270 people working in 33 libraries and two bookmobiles, but we have in excess of 1,000 volunteers,” he said.