ST. GEORGE — With a suggestion from Utah Rotary’s District Governor-elect Jose Velasco, one local club is considering starting up a satellite club with the express goal of helping Southern Utah’s military veteran community.
“This idea kind of came up out of the blue,” said David Nelson, chairperson for service projects with the Rotary Club of Dixie Sunrise, as well as the other 44 clubs across the state. “Jose called me up about two months ago and asked what I thought about forming a veterans’ club.”
After some discussion, the idea began to take shape.
“The Rotary’s motto is ‘Service above self,'” Nelson said. “The biggest thing about Rotary is to bring people together in fellowship and service targeting the general population, but one group that we’ve found out that was being left out are veterans.”
While other service clubs and organizations, such as the Marine Corps League and the American Legion, champion veterans issues, Nelson said the St. George-based Rotary Club of Dixie Sunrise wants to join the mix.
“I want this club to think out of the box,” he said. ” We are not looking at pushing out the work the Marine Corps League and others do … but let’s seek out the people and find out what they really need and how we can provide services to them.”
This is a new concept for Rotary with only two other veteran oriented clubs in the United States: one in Texas and one in Minnesota.
One thing unique that we can bring to the table, Nelson said, is a vast network of contacts spread throughout the communities the clubs serve and best practice ideas found in Rotary International’s global reach.
To bring the idea of a Utah-based Rotary club for veterans from concept to reality will require interest from eight people, both former military or nonmilitary residents, Nelson said.
“If I can get eight people to start, I can create the kind of organization we need to create,” he said. “From there I know it will grow.”
David Higbee, former Navy man and member of Dixie Sunrise, said he is “extremely” interested in being a founding member of a military-oriented Rotary group.
For Higbee, it’s about making it as easy as possible to get as many people involved to help Southern Utah’s veteran community.
“There are a lot of veterans out there who want to give back but don’t have the monetary means to join a service club,” Higbee said. “We want to design this club so that it wouldn’t have a lot of fiscal impact on someone but offers the opportunity to provide community service to help vets in need.”
A growing community of veterans in need of help are younger military personnel who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think what we have to do is especially encourage the younger vets coming home,” Higbee said.
According to the National Council of Behavioral Health, 30% of active duty and reserve military personnel who deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health condition requiring treatment. Of this percentage, approximately 730,000 men and women experience post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.
Modern-day vets not only battle mental health issues but have a greater degree of living on the fringe of society.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates there are more than 124,000 veterans who are considered homeless based on those who stayed in emergency shelters or transitional housing at some point during the year. This number equals more than the combined seating capacity of the cadet football stadiums for the Army, Navy-Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard combined. And on any given night, there are more than 40,000 veterans living on the streets.
Homeless veterans are younger on average than the total veteran population. Approximately 9% are 30 years of age or younger, and 41% are between the ages of 31-50. Conversely, 5% of veterans in general are 30 years and younger, and less than 23% are 31-50 years old.
“The way you provide people with hope is to give them help,” Nelson said. “You have to offer them your heart and do what it takes to go out and get what someone needs. It’s not about providing lip service, this doesn’t buy you anything. It’s about taking action.”
Rotary started in 1905 with the vision of Paul Harris, a Chicago attorney who formed the first club in his hometown. The goal was to bring together professionals from diverse backgrounds to develop lifelong friendships. Over time, Rotary’s mission has become more of a humanitarian-based service club.
One of Rotary International’s biggest program began in 1979 to eradicate polio with a project to immunize 6 million children in the Philippines. Today, polio remains endemic in three countries, which is down from 125 in 1988.
Members address combating social challenges and inequities found in their communities and around the world.
Today, Rotary International is made up of 33,000 clubs located in more than 200 countries and geographical areas, forming a global network of 1.2 million business and professional leaders who volunteer their time and talents to make a difference in people’s lives.
In Southern Utah, Dixie Sunrise’s largest project is a monthly food basket distribution through a partnership with the Utah Food Bank.
“In November, we fed 1,200 people,” Nelson said. “With COVID we’ve increased this number quite a bit. Normally we would feed 500-600.”
Other projects Dixie Sunrise is involved with include donations to more than 250 at-risk high school students of clothing and personal care items, a partnership with Snow Canyon State Park to provide much-needed volunteer work, a quarterly cleanup of Dixie Drive and handing out Christmas gifts to seniors through Meals on Wheels.
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