Special to The Press
BRISTOL - Leaders from eight communities came together Monday to forge a partnership in supporting and expanding the Bristol Veterans Strong Community Center.
The eight communities were Bristol, Southington, Plainville, Plymouth, Wolcott, Thomaston, Burlington and Harwinton.
According to Donna Dognin, the veterans’ assistance specialist and head of the center, the partnership will “provide outreach in those communities, as well as here in Bristol, and give the veterans of those communities greater access to whatever programs or services they need.”
At the center, Dognin helps veterans find programs to get financial assistance, do job searches, locate paperwork, find resources to help with homelessness and much more.
“Together we recognize the commitment and sacrifice veterans and service members have made and are making every day (and) the importance of providing effective and relevant resources to veterans and service members,” said Dognin.
Dognin, Bristol Mayor Ken Cockayne, Plainville Town Manager Robert E. Lee, and officials from Thomaston, Harwinton and Burlington all signed the partnership at Bristol City Hall.
Representatives from Southington, Plymouth and Wolcott were unable to attend but will sign the document by the end of the week.
“This is a shining example of what collaboration, partnership and service to Connecticut’s veterans is all about,” said state Veterans Affairs Commissioner Sean Connolly.
The center, which aids thousands of veterans a year, almost didn’t make it to see this outpouring of support.
Back in 2012, Pat Nelligan, then chairman of the Veterans Council, brought the Army Strong Community Center to Bristol. But in 2016, the federal government cut all funding to the program.
Tim Gamache of the Bristol Veterans Council said all the centers across the country closed, except for the one in Bristol.
“We have a saying in the military: ‘Not on my watch.’ Not on my watch means you’re safe while I do everything in my power to protect you,” said Nelligan. “With funding cuts it (the center) just couldn’t be sustained. We were faced with a dilemma, which was it was going away. The Veterans Council got together and said, ‘Not on my watch.’”
Thus the Veterans Strong Community Center was born.
The Bristol Veterans Council sponsored the center, which now serves all veterans, not just those who served in the Army. Despite the support, the center almost had to close last December, said Nelligan. Luckily, it didn’t shut down and is now receiving even more support.
Cockayne said when he mentioned the partnership to the other representatives, “everybody was on the same page” and excited to be a part of it.
According to the mayor, in just the last year the center helped 8,000 veterans and their families in the eight communities.
Cockayne also said it would cost less money if the towns worked together.
Many of those at the signing emphasized how important a center like this is to veterans.
“We’re looking at 20 veterans taking their own lives every day. Even though we’ve solved chronic homelessness in the state of Connecticut, I assure you that they’re in your towns and communities still: veterans who are struggling,” said Nelligan.
John Lodovico, a member of the executive committee of the Bristol Veterans Council and a disabled Vietnam veteran, said veterans have a variety of things they need help with, such as PTSD.
Gamache said that by expanding its outreach, the center will encourage more people to join the military.
In honor of her service to veterans and continued service as the center expands its outreach, Connolly awarded Dognin a challenge coin.
It reads “veterans always” and “serving those who serve.”