By Chris Maza
LONGMEADOW – As Veterans’ Services Agent Anthony Lawrence approaches his one-year anniversary with the town of Longmeadow, he is happy to report that his office’s efforts in helping veterans realize their benefits have been very well received.
While Lawrence did not have any statistics readily available, at a recent Board of Selectmen meeting, Town Manager Stephen Crane said the number of Longmeadow veterans receiving benefits grew by approximately 300 percent during the past year.
“I’ve just been doing the best I can to get information out there,” Lawrence said. “The response has been very good. Judging from the phone calls, the walk-ins and the requests for appointments that I get, I would say it has been pretty successful. I’m very happy the community has been so receptive.”
Lawrence, a U.S. Army combat veteran who served in the Iraqi War and was a caseworker with the Springfield Department of Veterans’ Services for two years, came to Longmeadow at the beginning of April 2013, filling a vacancy created when former Veterans’ Services Agent Jason Dieni left for a position with the federal government in July 2012.
Lawrence said the town has a large number of World War II veterans, as well as some veterans of the Vietnam War. While there are a few, he said there is not an abundance of servicemen and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq at this point.
The challenge, he said, lies in understanding the needs of each demographic.
“Each era has a different need,” he said. “World War II veterans, for example, will receive different benefits than others because of their age. At the same time, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are just starting out with the process and learning what their benefits are.”
He said he has been able to boost the number of veterans receiving services primarily through public outreach. He credited the Veterans’ Circle meetings at the Adult Center as a useful avenue, explaining he often invites veterans’ organizations such as the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke or the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs to give presentations on programs and services available to them, or he will lead the presentations himself.
“After those meetings, a lot of times those in attendance will talk to their friends who are also veterans and a lot of the information will get passed around by word of mouth,” he said.
Lawrence said he also conducts home visits and sends out mailings with information.
In addition to ensuring veterans are properly serviced, Lawrence said he also has a goal of getting the entire community more involved in veterans’ affairs. So far, he has done so with a highly successful Warrior 5K Run/Walk in November 2013 that drew more than 500 runners. Now he is in the midst of a new project called the Wounded Warrior Fit Club.
The club offers free fitness classes and nutritional tips to veterans as well as residents of Longmeadow and surrounding communities. All fitness levels are welcome to the sessions that take place Sundays at 9 a.m. and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at the Greenwood Community Center.
Lawrence said he hoped the club would eventually include boot camp classes and yoga.
In addition to fitness training, the group, which met for the first time on March 2, has a goal to raise $10,000, which it will present as a donation to the Wounded Warrior Project at this year’s 5K.
Lawrence also credited the town government with its unwavering support of his efforts.
“The town has been extremely supportive in every way. They have been very accommodating,” he said. “They give me everything I need to make my vision a reality.”
For information on programming and services through the Veterans’ Services office, contact Lawrence at 565-4150.