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Veterans, ASU alumni give back to community through The Veterans Directory

The Veterans Directory
Army veterans Erik Torres (left) and Matthew DePaul pose for a portrait on Friday, June 3, 2016, in Phoenix. Torres and DePaul work at The Veterans Directory, an online service that aims to connect veterans with services in fewer than three clicks.

A group of veterans and ASU alumni are giving back to the military community by operating a sort of online "Yellow Pages for Veterans," called The Veterans Directory

The site acts as a launching pad for veterans looking to transition into their post-military life. Veterans are able to find new education and employment opportunities through the directory, as well as a list of companies in the area that offer discounted or unique services for members of the military.

Chief Executive Officer and ASU alumna Danita Rios said the company came about after she and some veteran acquaintances of hers pitched the idea to a local charity — the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation.

"We presented the idea to them and they jumped on board 100 percent," she said. "We're the first veteran project that they've ever funded ... in its entirety."

Although Rios did not serve in the armed forces herself, she said she sees tangible needs in the military community and knew she would need to work hand-in-hand with veterans to palpably give back.

"Getting money is only part of the solution, now it's really going into the community and making it happen," Rios said. 

Army veteran Matthew DePaul, The Veterans Directory director of outreach, met Rios at a speaking engagement after recently becoming a veteran. 

DePaul said was excited to work with The Veterans Directory, in part because the site is the first of its kind in terms of execution. 

The directory is engineered to get veterans from the home page to an organization or resource they can utilize in three clicks or less, DePaul said. 

"Our approach was (to find the) shortest distance between the front of the site and actually accessing a resource," he said. "Not landing on another page that just gives you more information, but 'apply here,' 'register here,' 'call so-and-so here.'"

DePaul said many of his colleagues, who are ASU alumni, are able to use the directory to serve both the educational and veteran communities.

"You never know what veteran is going to approach you, because it's all about a comfort level," he said. "Consider it an all-inclusive toolkit for both sides of the house — for ASU, it would mean that professors, counselors, advisers go to that site." 

Having a tool that allows a civilian to directly help a veteran — regardless of any prior experience with veterans or the military — is a great innovation, DePaul said.

Joanna Sweatt, chief operating officer and Marine Corps veteran, said a lack of education and communication creates a divide between the civilian world and the military world.

Civilians often want to help repay veterans for the services they've provided, but it's difficult to know how to do that, she said.

Through her work with the directory, Sweatt said she hopes to overcome compartmentalization of people in classes such as "civilians" or "veterans," and demonstrate that the needs they have are completely human.

"We can't advance as a society, in our human factors, if we don't get all together,"  she said.

Involving the community beyond typical archetypal roles has enabled The Veterans Directory to gain influential supporters, such as former Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon, who serves as the chairman of the directory's executive board.

Gordon said the work Rios and her colleagues do has kept the organization growing and has been instrumental in rendering aid to veterans after their military service. 

"The credit goes to Danita and her team," he said. "They're certainly overworked and underpaid, but believe in the cause and you can see the commitment that they've made."

The Veterans Directory is a work in progress and is actively looking for input as to how the site can improve, Gordon said. 

"Every organization that truly wants to help and is helping veterans — their primary mission isn't to market, it's to serve the veteran with whatever service or opportunity," he said. "Whereas this mission, which is so unique, is to market — to connect businesses."

Although many organizations are set up to meet veteran needs, they often do not have the funding to market themselves effectively, which allows many needs to fall through the cracks, Gordon said.

Army veteran and ASU alumnus Erik Torres said his experience in the military and the University have given him a keen eye for those needs in both communities.

"As a veteran myself going through the educational process, I wasn't aware of the services or the organizations that are there to provide support for that," Torres said. "I was challenged in navigating through those programs."

Torres, now the data and financial analyst, first met Joanna Sweatt while attending ASU.

Sweatt worked in the Pat Tillman Veterans Center and employed Torres as a work study. His work with Sweatt combined with his experience as a veteran in college made him especially prepared for his current job, he said.

"My first semester at ASU was the last semester that I had any (military) benefits for," he said. "And I had no way, or no knowledge, of how I was going to pay for school."

Now, through the directory, Torres and his colleagues are able to thoroughly compile lists of military-specific scholarships and financial aid in order to bridge the gaps they know exist. 

"We actually contact these organizations to verify that they are still established and that they are supporting veterans," Torres said. "Many organizations ... have these wonderful pages that say, 'donate money, here's what we do,' and then — for a veteran who needs the service — it's a challenge to find actually how to contact that organization to get that service." 

Sweatt echoed Torres' sentiment and said the time it takes for a veteran to transition back into everyday life is an obstacle the military community needs help overcoming.

"It takes seven years to transition and find your footing somewhere — that's far too long," she said. 

Sweatt said her job allows her to ensure that veterans are able to receive as much as they gave to the community. 

"These young men and women start from a very young age raising our hand to provide a service to their country, to their community," Sweatt said. "So when they come back, I want to make sure that the community receives them and gives them every opportunity to assimilate back."

The Veterans Directory is continuing to expand, with the goal of serving the entire globe, Rios said.

"Today, our focus has been Arizona," she said. "We're going national as we speak ... we will be a worldwide directory, because there are active military all over the world and just being that resource that connect veterans no matter where they're at is key." 

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