Hundreds come out to honor veterans on Memorial Day
If you’re a veteran or your family member served in the military, there’s an expo on Aug. 3 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to help connect you with resources.
The fourth annual Veterans Awareness Expo will feature more than 50 service providers who can help with a variety of needs, from homelessness to companionship. There also will be demonstrations, military vehicles, food trucks and more.
The event, hosted at the Mid-America All-Indian Center, is a partnership between two veteran-focused organizations run by a veteran and a former Navy wife in Sedgwick County: the Veterans Providers’ Coalitions and Vet to Vet Support Command Inc., respectively.
The foundation for the expo started in 2015 when Howard Hutchison, an injured veteran, formally started the Veteran Providers’ Coalition of Sedgwick County. The mold of the coalition, and eventually the expo, was built from his own experiences after leaving the military.
“It was a vision of my disability and my service in the military that was the catalyst for all of this ... I had extensive needs from my injuries in the service and it just coincided with many of the needs I was seeing with other veterans,” Hutchison said.
There was a void between the providers of resources for veterans and the veterans that needed their services in Wichita and the surrounding areas, he said.
“Organizations weren’t really working together or sharing information and I thought if I started the coalition and brought them all together ... it’d better facilitate everyone,” Hutchison said. “I just felt like I was somehow uniquely in a position to best fulfill that vision.”
The coalition hosts monthly lunch meetings at the First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway, in Meredith Hall, where veterans can access a free buffet and get information about service providers registered with the coalition.
When it first began, Hutchinson said the coalition was a list of 15 service providers with veteran programs. Almost five years later, the coalition is a community of about 60 service providers.
The coalition, is a “safety net” for veterans in Sedgwick County, said Patty Gnefkow, president and CEO of Vet to Vet Support Command Inc. and a former Navy wife.
“I think it exemplifies and showcases just the level of cohesion and continuity that Wichita has in wrapping our veterans in services,” Hutchison said.
On the day of the Veterans Awareness Expo, Gnefkow said the museum will be free for all veterans and those still on active duty. Discounted family tickets will be available for $4.
“The main purpose of the expo is for resources for veterans and their families,” Gnefkow said.
Hutchison said the expo is like an job or activities fair, but the booths will have services and programs available for veterans. One of the programs is the Battle Buddy Foundation, which is a free program that pairs wounded combat veterans with dogs to help them adapt back into civilian life and cope with PTSD or injuries.
There will be a booth at the expo for veterans to bring their official discharge document, DD-214, in order to register the document with the Sedgwick County Register of Deeds. The office will provide veterans with five certified copies of the document free of charge. Additionally, residents of Sedgwick County will also be given Veteran and Military Discount Cards for local businesses.
The Wichita VA Regional Office will also have a presence at the expo, something Sharon Hamric, communications director for Vet to Vet and a former Navy public affairs officer, said isn’t common for community-led veteran coalitions and initiatives.
“It’s kid of unusual as far as veterans go to have the official VA with all of these other providers. Sometimes they butt heads ... but now everybody works together because of (Vet to Vet and the coalition),” Hamric said. “You don’t see it in other cities.”
Last year’s theme was the USS Wichita. This year, the expo will be based on McConnell Air Force Base.
“We’re bringing it home right here in our own backyard,” Hutchison said. “We’re bringing it home right here in our own backyard.”
Starting at 1 p.m., there will be a presentation on the KC-46 Pegasus tanker led by base leaders. The new base commander, Col. Richard Tanner, will also be giving the keynote address.
“I think that this will probably be his first exposure to the community,” Hutchison said.
Last year, Gnefkow estimated about 1,000 people came through the expo. This time around, with radio stations, food trucks and other exciting happenings, she said she expects even more people will attend.
This expo is just one of the many ways Hutchison said Wichita embraces its veteran population.
“No other city does it better than we do,” Hutchison said.
Many cities have minor coalitions or Vet to Vet programs, but very few have had the success the programs in Sedgwick County have had, something Gnefkow and Hutchison both attribute to the partnerships between all of the providers and leaders of the programs.
“I had the vision of Vet to Vet and he had the vision of the coalition, but marrying those to have all of this fruit come of it is amazing,” Gnefkow said. “Literally none of this would be happening if it weren’t for Hutch’s vision.”
Other counties and cities are starting to take notice, Gnefkow said.
“People from other counties are looking at our programming and saying ‘This is great, how do we get this started here,’” Gnefkow said.
Hamric said she loves the program and the expo because nothing “stands in the way of getting one vet the help they need.”
“This community can find any way to meet your needs and from there, we will help you get on your way to finding what you need,” Hamric said.
For more information about the coalition meetings or the expo, call Gnefkow at 316-992-2247 or visit www.vpcsc.org.