Challange america

Mark Sack and Dallas Blaney

U.S. soldiers are well aware that when they sign up to serve their country, they could sacrifice more than their time. Their health and bodies can become collateral damage in the country’s never-ending quest to defend itself. And while there are many organizations and programs to assist veterans, sometimes those who suffer injuries need more or specialized assistance. One organization, Challenge America, is bringing a program to the Cleveland area to try to help some Northeast Ohio veterans with specialized needs and the organization is also expanding the program to assist some Israel Defense Forces veterans, too.

Challenge America was started in Aspen, Colo. but now operates internationally, has programs helping veterans with music therapy and the Military Sisterhood Program, which supports veteran women, but the organization is bringing a different program to the Cleveland area, with a goal of assisting both Northeast Ohio veterans and now, Israeli veterans, too.

The program is Challenge America’s Makers for Veterans – shortened to CAMVETS by the organization – and in Cleveland it will be a partnership between Challenge America, VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System, BioEnterprise and Cleveland Clinic involving a collaborative process between the development team, made up of volunteer engineers, designers and other professionals, as well as the veteran, who has a voice in the process.

Challenge America Executive Director Dallas Blaney said the expansion of CAMVETS beyond its pilot program, which launched in the spring, to include Israeli veterans made sense because the injuries the soldiers of the two countries suffer are similar.

“My experience so far, is that the injuries really aren’t that different,” said Blaney, who is a U.S. Navy veteran. “One of the things I’ve been learning is that severity of post-traumatic (stress disorder) in Israel is something that’s really just starting to come to light. A lot of folks in Israel hadn’t been aware until recent years of how widespread that challenge is. I think maybe through a program like ours, we can help Israeli soldiers cope with that particular challenge on a different level.”

For the veterans, the first step in the five-month program has them as individuals identifying a specific challenge he or she faces. Examples from the pilot CAMVETS campaign in the spring included a team creating a specialty cane for a veteran so he could get down on the floor to play with his newborn and back up again as he needs to and another team helped a woman who struggles with PTSD by creating an app called DiGi the Digital Service Dog that, when connected to a smartwatch, can determine when her heart rate is increasing and automatically open itself up, featuring a trivia game, photos of her pets and other content meant to both calm her and encourage her to leave the house and do things to make her happy.

As for the team members, not just designers and tech experts that CAMVETS is trying to find to be team members – the needs vary, from mechanical and biomedical engineers to psychologists, pain specialists, communications experts, financial advisors and even biking enthusiasts. For the Cleveland CAMVETS program, Challenge America has identified six of the veterans that they will try to assist and are in the process of finding the Israeli veterans for this campaign, Blaney said. The needs are varied and Challenge America serves veterans from all wars and of all ages. One of them involves a veteran who wants improved ambulation outside so he can play with his young son. Another is a vet who enjoys biking and wants to be able to take her service dog with her on rides. A third is seeking help managing her finances while she manages her depression and PTSD. Challenge America is also forming teams to help bring the DiGi app to the Apple App Store and another to help develop an online platform for Challenge America’s Military Sisterhood Program.

Blaney said Challenge America does look for certain things when it selects the veterans for its CAMVETS program. He shared some of what the organization seeks in a candidate.

“One of the criteria would be feasibility, so, is it something we can actually pull off with this program?” Blaney said. “Some of the projects, the applicants we get, they need invasive technology. So, feasibility, market viability - is this a project that, if we create a working prototype, would fill a much larger need in the military community and elsewhere?”

So, why did a national organization like Challenge America select Cleveland as the focus for CAMVETS? Blaney said it just made sense.

“We already had a program that we’re running here in Cleveland,” said Blaney, referring to Challenge America’s music therapy program. “So, we were thinking about starting up this (CAMVETS) program. We literally looked all across the nation, trying to find the best place to do it and Cleveland just made the most sense. You’ve got the Cleveland Clinic, the third-largest (Veterans Affairs) in the country, you’ve got Case Western Reserve University, with all the amazing brain power there and the (CWRU Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears) think[box], the largest makerspace in the world. You’ve got University Hospitals, you’ve got an incredible community that’s very supportive of its military service members. The more closely we looked at it, the more sense it made to start it here.”

The organization has been assisted locally by partnerships, some of which have been facilitated by Orange resident Mark Sack, a member of Solon Chabad who is a social studies teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, Sack is an unofficial “volunteer liaison” for Challenge America and has been working to help the organization find its footing in the Cleveland area. The mission is an important one for Sack, an Israel Defense Forces veteran himself.

“I’m just trying to connect this incredible organization that’s helping both American and Israeli injured veterans to do their great work here in Cleveland,” said Sack. “Taking care of the men and women who have served their country is an important shared value for both the United States and Israel. Another one of these shared values that these great nations have – and we need to do right by – is those who serve.”

Challenge America has a welcome reception at the Global Center for Health innovation in Cleveland from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 28, which is open to all, along with three milestone events scheduled for the CAMVETS fall 2019 campaign for team members and mentors, who are expected to attend all three events. The first event is the CAMVETS Kick-Off, which is Sept. 20 at St. Edward High School in Lakewood, followed by the Makeathon, a three-day inventing session, which will be Nov. 8 to Nov. 10, also at St. Edward High School. The final event will be the closing ceremony, which will be held the evening of Nov. 11, also at the Global Center in Cleveland.

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