Philadelphia declares 2014 the Year of the Veteran
It started with a meeting in the office of Fern Billet, congressional liaison and community relations director of the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, that set off a proclamation across the city: declare 2014 the “Year of the Veteran.”
The proclamation only made sense, as the 34th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games would be coming to Philadelphia Aug. 11-17, 2014, continuing the city’s legacy in history and sports. The Philadelphia Free Library’s “One Book, One Philadelphia” program also had chosen the book The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, an account of a veteran’s experience while at war in Iraq, as its annual selection for discussions and events to be held throughout the city’s 52 libraries.
“I thought that with the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and the selection of the veteran’s book, that I happened to say, ‘it’s like it’s the year of the veteran,” Billet said. “One of the representatives from the Veterans Multiservice Center ran with the idea and took it the city council.”
The proclamation, passed unanimously by the city council, aims to recognize the accomplishments of veterans and raise public awareness of veterans’ issues. Philadelphia is the birthplace of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, and is home to more than 88,000 veterans with service spanning World War II until the present. In 2012, Philadelphia became the first city in America to offer a tax credit to employers hiring returning veterans.
While the city of Philadelphia is a natural fit to host the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, planning has involved an intense effort on the part of the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Paralyzed Veterans of America.
“It’s important to note that most host VAs get two years to plan for their event, and we took on this role with only one year to plan,” said Bethany Purdue, local coordinator for the 34th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games. “It’s been a sprint from the beginning.”
Despite the time planning for the Games in Philadelphia cut roughly in half, the local organizing committee contends that the commitment to ensuring the Games are a success has not been half-hearted. Aside from planning for 18 different sporting events, the committee’s responsibilities have involved planning for equipment, meals, medical staff and supplies, site setup, transportation, airport operations and opening/closing ceremonies and other events.
The committee also was responsible for coming up with the 34th annual Games theme, “Where Heroes Make History.”
“This is an opportunity for the veterans to come to the city and make their own page in history by competing in the Wheelchair Games,” Purdue said.
The VA’s local organizing team is made up not of professional planners, but rather a team of VA nurses as well as rehabilitation, human resources and information technology staff, who took on the role of planning the Games as an ancillary responsibility to their regular jobs at the VA, Purdue said.
The fundraising team – made up of two VA social workers with no previous fundraising experience – managed to raise $180,000 in support of the Games, plus an additional $175,000 in in-kind donations, Purdue added.
While the Games are in Philadelphia, some of the events will take place at venues in Southern New Jersey, and VA officials have seen an outpouring of support and volunteerism from both communities, Billet said. “The support from the community has been incredible,” she said.
With 2014 declared the “Year of the Veteran” across Philadelphia, officials from the VA hope their planning and efforts will live up to that proclamation and secure a positive experience for all of the disabled heroes visiting the city to compete in the 2014 Games.
“We’re really excited to bring the games to Philadelphia, and we’re looking forward to a lot of fun in the city, ‘Where Heroes Make History,’” Billet said.
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.