Invitations in hand, city and state officials came together Thursday morning to honor Linda Schwartz — a representative from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — with speeches, tears of gratitude and bacon and cheese omelettes.
Mayor Toni Harp hosted a breakfast reception and celebration for Schwartz’s first return visit to the Elm City since her transition to the nation’s capital. Schwartz, Connecticut’s former commissioner of veterans affairs, currently serves as the assistant secretary for policy and planning for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. The reception served both as a celebration of Schwartz’s accomplishments and a platform for further discussion on VETTS — New Haven’s pilot violence prevention program that targets at-risk youth.
Veterans Empowering Teens Through Support is a partner program of New Haven’s Youth Stat, which is an initiative that uses data to identify at-risk youth. The program pairs honorably discharged veterans with local youth to encourage healthy lifestyles free from violence, drugs and crime. Veterans who enlist in the program counsel local New Haven students who have been identified by their schools as prone to troubled behavior.
The veterans serve as mentors to the youth, and are available to advise their students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The program aims to forge tight bonds between the two parties, assuring the youth participants that they always have a reliable adult to consult when in need, according to VETTS coordinator Frank Galley. While VETTS focuses on putting students on a healthy track, its main purpose seems to be employing and reintegrating local veterans when they come back from the armed forces.
The breakfast, hosted at the Graduate Club on Elm Street, featured not only Harp and Schwartz, but also Sen. Chris Murphy, State Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Sean Connolly and several local veterans. The reception began with a video presentation of VETTS’ progress in the city, followed by speeches by local veterans praising the program.
Schwartz, along with veterans in attendance, voiced concerns regarding the mental health and financial security of veterans upon returning home from their missions.
“The saddest day of my life was when I had to leave the Air Force,” said Schwartz, who is a veteran herself. “I was worried I wouldn’t know how to live my life without a strict daily routine.”
Local veteran James Roy agreed with Schwartz, adding that he struggled with finding work and immersing himself back into daily life upon his return home from the army. Roy said his involvement with VETTS has been a solution to problems adjusting to civilian life.
According to Roy, VETTS combines well-paying jobs for veterans with the military values of brotherhood and community support.
“I’m thankful for everything that the program does,” he said at the breakfast. “Not only does it pay my bills, but it’s something that I’m passionate about.”
Murphy echoed Roy and highlighted the positive effect that the program has for veterans. He added that while VETTS primarily benefits local veterans, the program also benefits at-risk youth in the city.
“This program speaks to what the vets are missing at home,” Murphy said. “You have this brotherhood with these kids that you once had out on the battlefield.”
Murphy concluded the talk on VETTS by praising Harp for her leadership in the program and her acknowledgement of the necessity of mentorship programs for city youth. Murphy also presented Schwartz with an award for her outstanding service as Connecticut’s commissioner for veterans affairs, citing her local and national policy initiatives.
New Haven Youth Stat will celebrate its one-year anniversary later this month.