Will Watts, co-director at the Legal Clinic, and Jonathan Varat, chief UCLA liaison to Veterans Affairs. Photos by Michelle Groskopf.
When parents arrive with their children at the UCLA VA Veteran Family Wellness Center, they’re frequently struggling with a stockpile of sorrows: estrangement from the extended family, substance abuse or PTSD.
“Right now I’m seeing a mom,” says Gabriela Alejos, a “family trainer” at the center. “She has a 4-year-old, and they’ve been dealing with the deployment of her partner, the father of her child. They’ve having a really hard time.”
That’s why Alejos — and her co-workers — include playtime on their list of strategies. A little fun, she explains, “creates a safe environment for a child to be heard. … Having a child lead in that dynamic provides a space for a parent to lead outside of the play world. They don’t have to test limits as much if they can [both] be in control of something.”
Filling in the Gaps
The Veteran Family Wellness Center is one of three tent poles of an expanded partnership between the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and UCLA, which has committed $16.5 million over 10 years to programs designed to enhance the care of a population with a unique set of needs. The wellness center opened on the West L.A. VA campus in August, as did the UCLA School of Law Veterans Clinic. A center that will focus on veteran homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues is in the works.
The goal? Filling in gaps in care by treating the root causes of problems.
On any given day, participants in the new programs are being coached on communication or parenting skills, signing up for resilience training, or receiving assistance as they navigate the often byzantine process of dealing with a court citation or appealing a benefits ruling.
A Suite of Services
The new offerings are the latest development in a decades-long relationship between UCLA and the VA.
An official history of UCLA notes that “175 disabled veterans enrolled in courses” at the University of California “Southern Branch,” which opened on Vermont Avenue in 1919. During the post–World War II era, thousands of vets attended UCLA, thanks to the GI Bill or other government provisions. A campus Office of Veterans Affairs was established in 1945, and the university provided housing for veterans and their families for a time.
In addition, the VA Hospital and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have long been connected. Medical school faculty train doctors at the VA, and both residents and faculty treat thousands of veterans every year. Meanwhile, UCLA social work, nursing and public health students train and conduct research at the VA, serving veterans.
Today, UCLA’s “suite” of services for veterans includes the Student Veterans Resource Center; Operation Mend, a program established to treat the wounds of war; UCLA Anderson School’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities; the Brain Injury Research Center; and recreational activities at the West L.A. VA campus.
Does the expansion of services indicate that veterans’ needs are growing?
“Thankfully, [as a country] we pay closer attention now,” says Jonathan D. Varat, a former dean of the UCLA School of Law who is the chief liaison between the university and the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration. “I’m a Vietnam veteran, and as we all know, close to 58,000 Americans were killed in [that conflict]. In this more recent set of long wars … the number [of casualties] is always too high, but it’s [a percentage] of that 58,000. The reason is mostly medical successes,” Varat adds. “Unfortunately, soldiers then were not able to survive wounds that today, because of medical improvements, result in traumatic brain injuries or other issues.”
View of the grounds near the Wellness Center.
The historic chapel at the VA.
The Veterans Next Door
The 388-acre VA campus, just west of UCLA, occupies land that was donated by wealthy benefactors in the 1880s to establish a home for disabled soldiers. The park-like campus is home to several historic buildings, including the Victorian-era Wadsworth Chapel and structures that exemplify the Mission and Spanish Colonial Revival architectural styles of the early 20th century. But some of the buildings, including the chapel, are empty or in dire need of repair, an indication of how the campus has changed in the last few decades.
The VA once provided housing for thousands of veterans in West L.A., but in the 1960s, it stopped accepting new residents. The VA continued to offer medical and other types of services, but it also leased land and buildings to institutions such as 20th Century Fox and UCLA, whose baseball team practices and plays at Jackie Robinson Stadium there.
A 2011 lawsuit alleging misuse of the property resulted in a 2015 settlement that included a master plan devoted to housing, legal, health and job services for veterans. That settlement led to the agreement between UCLA and the VA that allows the baseball team to continue to use the stadium (at the annual rent of $300,000) and includes the expansion of support services for veterans, including the wellness center.
Surveying the toys and children’s books, center executive director Tess Banko says the facility, which operates as part of the UCLA Nathanson Family Resilience Center, offers the first programs on the VA campus that serve children. An important theme of all the classes and coaching — which are available to individuals as well as families — is resilience. The work at the center, Banko explains, “is based on the FOCUS [Families OverComing Under Stress] model, which was pioneered in part at UCLA.” FOCUS, which has been exported to more than 30 military bases worldwide, offers training in life skills such as emotional regulation, communication, collaborative problem solving and goal setting.
Changing Their Reality
Diana Helena, who served in the Navy from 1997 to 2001, says her experiences at the wellness center have been “lifesaving.” She adds: “The people here aren’t these rigid clichés that you sometimes find on [military] bases. They are loving, caring, kind and non-robotic. I felt it was a place I could take my children.”
Diana Helena, who served in the U.S. Navy.
Helena, the mother of an 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, is a big believer in the FOCUS program. Her family was struggling with various issues after she and her husband divorced, and she says her children “needed another adult who wasn’t me, listening to them.”
Now, she continues, “We are learning how to be a ‘three’ when we had been a ‘four.’ ”
Helena says that playtime has been a big part of her family’s time at the center: “Every session we have involves play. You’re actively doing something. We are painting and drawing. If you let [children] know you value their opinion … it changes their reality.”
Diana Helena with her family trainer, Angel Barrios.
José Pérez, an Army veteran, an officer in the National Guard and a project engineer with a construction company, sang the praises of FOCUS at an official opening ceremony last fall. The father of four says that when he returned from his third deployment to Iraq several years ago, he was “having a hard time feeling connected and dealing with my kids. [The FOCUS program] helped me regroup and connect with them.
“It was,” he adds, “one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Since its opening, Banko says, the wellness center has “touched” more than 1,000 veterans and family members.
Moving Forward with Their Lives
The UCLA School of Law Veterans Legal Clinic, located just a few hundred yards north of the wellness center, was created to help veterans “remove or address legal barriers and then let them move forward with their lives,” says clinic co-director Will Watts, who teaches and helps supervise the second- and third-year law students who work there.
On any given day, the students might be assisting veterans with changes in veteran benefits (”Maybe they feel their condition has deteriorated and believe they are entitled to an increase,” Watts explains) or helping them with minor traffic offenses — for example, citations that, if left unattended, can turn into much larger issues.
Judah Schultz, a young Army veteran, is effusive in his praise of the legal clinic. “In August, I was in Long Beach and I made a crossing and got a ticket,” he says. “I panicked. I couldn’t have this on my record.”
Judah Schultz, a young veteran who was discharged due to injury during training.
Judah Schultz meets with co-director Will Watts at the Legal Clinic.
UCLA School of Law students Ian Grady and Emily Waterhouse “wrote a very elegant motion,” Schultz says, and after the students appeared in court with him, the judge “dismissed the case.” He adds: “I would go [to the clinic] again. They really put time and effort into it.”
Since its opening, the clinic has assisted more than 80 men and women. For veterans, “Just having someone to work through their history … makes a difference in terms of how they are feeling in general,” Watts says. The client “knows there is someone in the trenches with them.”
The third prong in the expanded partnership, the VA UCLA Center of Excellence for Training and Research in Veteran Homelessness and Recovery, is in the works. Varat says this new center will “increase the quality of care, treatment and outreach for the homeless and those with substance abuse and health problems.”
It’s not only local veterans who are benefiting. Law students get clinical experience, university health-care providers and researchers acquire new areas of expertise, and graduates of UCLA Anderson School of Management’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities launch new businesses. “We have people across campus working and training [at the VA],” says Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon, executive director of communication and advocacy in the UCLA Office of Government & Community Relations. “There are research projects that span both campuses.”
Heidi Marston, administrative director of Community Engagement and Reintegration Services for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, says the new programs “are something great from our perspective. It brings in outside ideas.” And it’s possible some of those ideas will be replicated at VA campuses nationwide. Says Marston, “Our thoughts going in were that if we can make it happen [at the West L.A. campus] … we can make it happen anywhere.”
Watts and Varat.