Merlene Davis: Veterans' Outreach works to close gaps in social service

John Oliver Ely founded Ohio-based Veterans' Outreach in 1994.
John Oliver Ely founded Ohio-based Veterans' Outreach in 1994.

When asked why there was a need for the local chapter of Veterans' Outreach, Brenda Phillips, in typical military fashion, voice and cadence, said, "We try to close the gaps on social services for veterans."

That's it. That's the mission of the agency that has offices in four states, with two in Kentucky.

Phillips, who served in Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom and who was the first African-American warrant officer in Kentucky's National Guard, didn't have time for flowery speech. She was in the midst of securing funds for a young veteran who had come to Lexington for an appointment at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center but didn't have enough money to get back to his home 3½ hours away.

"He got stranded," she said. "I have to help him."

Veterans' Outreach helps veterans through advocacy, by paying bills, securing clothing, easing accessibility issues, and with dental and medical shortfalls.

The charitable organization, based in Struthers, Ohio, is not affiliated with the government. It is a sponsoring member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the United Service Organizations, and a charter member of the National World War II Memorial Society.

It was a radio interview with Veterans' Outreach founder and president John Oliver Ely on New Year's Eve 2002 that resulted in the opening of the first Kentucky office in Grayson. Ely was promoting a patriotic CD and his group during the interview. It garnered a lot of attention.

With the success of the Grayson office, Ely said, the organization tried temporary offices in Georgetown and Lexington before finally getting a place last year in the Ruby E. Bailey Family Service Center, 2350 Woodhill Drive.

The organization, which started with two employees in 1994, has 90 employees now, including those at the corporate office.

"It started catching on and accelerated at breakneck force," he said. "I didn't know what I was doing. But my dad was in the military and my brother has Agent Orange. I saw there were a lot of possibilities of helping vets."

Ely and his board of directors want each office to be autonomous. Each keeps the money it raises.

There have been requests from Alabama, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas to open offices, "but we can't do it right now," he said. "We've put a stop on opening up any other offices until our four regional offices can operate on their own."

The organization is on track to help veterans more than 4,000 times this year after raising more than $1 million last year. Although he's not a veteran, Ely said most of those who manage the offices are.

To raise money, volunteers sell patriotic buttons, flags and a CD of patriotic songs produced for the organization.

Home Free: A Tribute to the American Veteran can be heard and purchased at the organization's Web site,

Though the organization gets offerings of clothes, food, household items, cars, trailers, boats, refrigerators, and stoves, the Lexington branch does not have the space to store those items. So, unless there's an immediate need for a car, the organization can't use it because it can't store it.

"So the hunt is on for a storage area that we can utilize for those kinds of offerings," Ely said.

A lot of people think veterans are compensated in some way for their service to their country, Phillips said, but that is not true. Some don't have enough to pay their medical or prescription co-pays, or to get eyeglasses.

"Most often, we help with rent, groceries and transportation issues," Phillips said. "Since March, we've helped 25 to 30 veterans here."

Each applicant is interviewed one-on-one to assess his or her needs, and there is an outreach program for those with mental, emotional and physical problems.

"We are proud to be helping our vets in the great state of Kentucky, and if there are folks out there that want to get involved — by volunteering, special events coordinating, making a donation, becoming a sponsor or partner — they would be welcomed with open arms," Ely said.