By Tom Scherberger
A Naval Academy graduate, Ken Reinhardt spent four years in the Navy before working in the airline and manufacturing industries as an engineering and production manager.
“I left active duty in 1967, and for years I wasn’t eligible for VA benefits,” Reinhardt said. “At an AARP event in Orlando in 2010, the gentleman at a VA booth encouraged me to apply again and, lo and behold, I was deemed eligible. I use the VA for an annual physical and have been impressed with the care and efficiency at the local clinic.”
Reinhardt, 75, is an AARP volunteer and member of the Veterans Coalition of Coral Springs, where he lives. About a fourth of veterans struggle in civilian life, and, as Reinhardt shows, even those who succeed can use help.
Recognizing the need, AARP Florida is expanding services for veterans of all ages through outreach, volunteer training, support for existing veterans programs, and specialized AARP programs with proven track records. Outreach efforts have begun in the Tampa Bay area, Orlando, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and South Florida.
Florida has more than 1.5 million vets, the third most after California and Texas. About half of Florida’s veterans are 65 or older.
“The demographic makes it a logical audience for us to reach out to,” said Colleen Krepstekies, AARP Florida associate state director for communications, who is coordinating the effort. An Army National Guard major, Krepstekies is a former legislative and cabinet affairs officer for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs with her own network of contacts.
Florida is a veterans magnet for myriad reasons: great weather, no state income tax, multiple Veterans Affairs hospitals and veterans nursing homes, and an array of state benefits and programs for veterans. The state offers eligible veterans a property tax exemption, a special driver’s license designation for certain retail discounts, no-interest home loans, educational assistance and state examiners to help veterans navigate benefits.
Hundreds of veterans nonprofits operate in the state, and AARP will help guide veterans to the most reputable ones. “People who are older, especially veterans, can get isolated, so we are here to connect you with other resources that we are aware of and...give you a greater sense of purpose through volunteer opportunities,” Krepstekies explained.
Existing AARP programs will be customized for veterans. Abby Walters, AARP field coordinator for the Greater Orlando area, said a big focus will be Finances 50+, an AARP Foundation workshop series that educates people about credit, debt and saving for retirement.
Life Reimagined is another AARP program that can help veterans “figure out how to make changes they want to make in their lives,” Walters said. “It’s not limited to work or family or hobbies. It’s however they want to change.”
The AARP Volunteer Speakers Bureau is reaching out to veterans about caregiving and other issues. “We are going to make sure that our volunteers are prepared if they run into a veteran,” Walters said.
AARP is also partnering with groups such as the Veterans Arts Center Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, which focuses on education, therapy and wellness.
“Art is therapeutic,” explained founder and executive director Scott Macksam, a retired Army major. “It transforms; it grows people; it heals the inner wounds.”
Another partner organization, the National Association of Veterans & Families, is holding its third annual Champion for Veterans Gala fundraiser on May 19 in Atlantic Beach, near Jacksonville. The Florida Caregiver Conference in Tampa in November will have breakout sessions for veterans.
Tom Scherberger is a writer living in Treasure Island, Fla.