Veteran Project with a Legacy
Rachel Levine credits the volunteer work she did in high school and college with setting her on a path that led to NYLAG. She tutored at-risk children in New York, traveled to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and spent several months at a school in India giving children from remote areas of the country their first taste of the transformative power of education.
Levine is Project Coordinator for NYLAG’s Veterans Access to Benefits Project, a NYC Civic Corps program that provides qualified candidates with a full-time, ten-month service experience at various nonprofit agencies. The program is run by NYC Service, which promotes volunteerism to address pressing social issues across the City. NYC Civic Corps is part of AmeriCorps, a national public service organization whose members have contributed over 1.2 billion hours of service to nonprofits, schools and public agencies since its inception in 1994.
Levine works under the supervision of staff attorney David Falcon, who heads up NYLAG’s Veterans Assistance Project. He helps eligible veterans apply for Veterans Administration (VA) benefits, and other public benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps, and advises veterans on housing, consumer, and other legal matters.
When Levine arrived at NYLAG in September, her first task was to educate herself about the complicated array of benefits veterans may be eligible for, and then solicit and train volunteers who would work with her to screen veterans at community centers, VA hospitals and the offices of NYC Councilmembers Debi Rose and Eric Ulrich, Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Veterans.
“Veterans may come to us for one problem – say housing – but they are often facing a cascade of interlocking issues that compromise their ability to be employed, access health care, secure benefits or get an education – to name just a few,” said Levine. “So the screening process is critical – you have to ask the right questions before you can start to find solutions.”
Levine was able to recruit 48 volunteers (including eight veterans) who logged a total of 305 hours assisting veterans and directing them toward programs and resources to address their needs. In addition, she has handled many of her own cases and, along with volunteers, provided information and advice to many more. In all, the Veterans Access to Benefits Project has directly handled application cases for 30 veterans and provided information about health care issues and housing to 250 people.
“Rachel has far exceeded the initial goals we had set for this project. She has done an extraordinary job of mastering the processes and procedures that go into successfully identifying and applying for a range of benefits, in particular Service-Connected Disability Compensation (SCDC), which is highly complex to navigate but can be a life-changer for disabled veterans who qualify,” said Falcon. “Her warmth and personality put veterans at ease, making them comfortable enough to talk about difficult issues, leading to significant improvements in their quality of life.”
Levine has also developed a number of screening tools that will help make her efforts sustainable after the service assignment ends in July. These include an intake form focused specifically on VA benefits, a tracking form for SCDC applications and a satisfaction survey for veterans who receive direct services. The idea is to streamline workflow and create easy to use templates for the next generation of staff and volunteers working in the area of veterans’ benefits.
“These tools will be invaluable to us going forward,” said Falcon. “Since Rachel knows the process so well, what she has created will make us more efficient and ensure greater accuracy and consistency. This is particularly important when dealing with the VA. If we can give them the information they need, the way they need it – there is a better chance that applications will be approved the first time and vets will get the help they need.”
For her part, Levine feels she has gotten back far more than she has given during her brief time at NYLAG.
“Working at NYLAG showed me what can be achieved when we connect social work and legal work. I have gotten professional direction from successful attorneys who know veterans’ benefits cold. I just got a call from a client who has suffered with service-related mental and emotional health issues for 20 years. With my NYLAG colleagues, we were able to provide him with a gamut of support from housing to health care to monetary benefits, and in the process help him pick up the pieces of his life. He called to tell me he got a job. That felt so good.”
Levine starts at CUNY School of Law in August and is committed to a career in public interest.