ST. LUKE'S PASTORAL CENTER
ST. LUKE'S PASTORAL CENTER

Inside the parish center at St. Luke’s in Schenectady, a group of local veterans chat amongst themselves. Tables are pushed together, and the men and women sit down for the third installment of St. Luke’s veterans’ support group.

Still in its infancy, the group was created to establish a network of support for veterans and help local veterans in need.

“It’s a loose agenda,” said Rev. Dominic Isopo, pastor. “We’re just trying to figure out ways to help them.”

About a month ago, St. Luke’s food pantry told Father Isopo that a number of homeless veterans were coming to the pantry. In response, the veterans’ group was created “to discern what some of the needs are” of veterans, said the pastor.

According to a report by the Office of the New York State Comptroller, homelessness for New York veterans dropped from 5,765 veterans in 2011 to 1,248 veterans in 2016. Still, there are a number of area veterans in need of various services.

Using parish center

Margaret Anderton, pastoral associate for parish and urban ministry at St. Luke’s, said the parish planned to offer more community outreach programs like the veterans’ group after a remodel of the parish center — called a “pastoral center” by parishioners — was completed last year.

“We want to have this building be for the larger community,” she explained. “And, knowing there are a lot of veterans’ groups in need of space, we want to [help].”

Mrs. Anderton had been helping run the meetings, along with Father Isopo.

“I feel privileged” to help, said Mrs. Anderton. “My father was a Marine and was involved in the Marine Corps League; [he] was so proud to serve his country. It’s important we support our service men and women. These are people willing to give their lives every day for someone else.”

Jim Wilson, a St. Luke’s parishioner and a World War II veteran, said he’s attending the meetings to see “what we can give to veterans.” Mr. Wilson is a former director for the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs in Schenectady County. He donates to St. Luke’s food pantry as often as he can, thinking of any homeless veterans who use it.

“The thing that bothers me personally more than anything is the homelessness of veterans,” he said. “I was brought up during the Great Depression, and food was always a big thing.”

Not joining up

One of the issues the St. Luke’s group has been addressing is the decline in membership for veterans’ organizations in Schenectady.

The United States Census Bureau lists approximately 9,000 veterans as living in Schenectady County between 2012 and 2016, but the number of veterans entering groups like the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) or the American Legion is decreasing.

“Most veteran organizations are starving, in a way,” said parishioner Bob Becker. Mr. Becker has worked for numerous veterans’ organizations in Schenectady for more than 30 years (read a previous story at www.evangelist.org).

VFW Post 357, located off 5th Ave. in Schenectady, recently put its building up for sale after the organization could no longer afford the space due to declining membership. St. Luke’s has discussed using its parish center as a space for the organization, but nothing has been confirmed.

“The younger veterans tend not to join those groups,” said Mrs. Anderton. “But, at the same time, they’re just as in need of a support group. So, how do we get folks together?”

Another pressing issue facing the veteran community is mental health and suicide. According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, an average of 20 veterans a day die from suicide.

Mr. Wilson said that one of his brothers, who also served in the military, suffered from nightmares after returning home and eventually turned to drinking.

“People don’t realize that a fellow girl standing in line could be a Marine,” he said. “They don’t know what they went through in their military life.”

We can help

Father Isopo spent 23 years as a chaplain with the Air Force. “It’s an important part of our ministry,” he said, to care for any veterans in need.

The pastor said his focus is on reaching out to local veterans who don’t know the new group exists, so they can find help.

The veterans’ group has also discussed organizing a meeting in the fall with veterans’ organizations such as Guardian House of Saratoga, which houses homeless female veterans, about helping homeless veterans. The group is also hoping to put together a pamphlet of information on local resources for veterans, answering questions on applying for disability or other benefits.

“I don’t have all the answers, but if we work together, maybe we’ll come out with the right answers,” said Mr. Becker. “It’s going to take some time to get it, but we’ll get it. I think we’ve got a good group here.”

“I’m 91 years old,” said Mr. Wilson. “To spread any knowledge I have and support, I’m willing to do whatever I can.”

(For more information on St. Luke’s veterans’ group, contact the parish at 518-346-3405.)