A desire to ensure that all area veterans have access to the resources and services they need is what prompted a small group of people to start Honoring/Hiring/Helping Our Heroes of Pinal County eight years ago.

Since the organization started, thousands of veterans have been helped.

“It’s very rewarding helping those who have served our country,” said Kim Vandenberg, director of HOHP and one of the founders of the organization. “Most of our volunteers are veterans and for them there is something special connecting their brothers and sisters to the services they need.”

The organization continues to grow and adapt to meet the needs of area veterans.

“When we started we didn’t have an office or a facility,” Vandenberg said. “We worked out of our houses and our cars.”

HOHP had its beginnings in 2013 when a group, including Vandenberg, Udo Cook, Palmer Miller and others, met at the Arizona@Work Pinal County office to talk about the reasons why area veterans were having trouble accessing services and how to help.

“Pinal County has the third highest population of veterans in the state,” said Vandenberg, who was working for the state Department of Economic Security in 2013. “But we had vets living in the desert and under bridges. A few of us started meeting to talk about how to help veterans.”

Later that year, the group held its first “Stand Down” event to draw attention to the needs of veterans in the area. A year later, the group was incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

The new organization acquired its Eagle One Mobile Outreach Center later that year. A 39-foot recreational vehicle with an exam table, Wi-Fi-connected laptops and a printer, the unit allowed the group to travel to rural parts of the county and expand its efforts to help veterans find services and benefits.

“We purchased the RV from Pinal County for one dollar,” Vandenberg said. “The Gila River Indian Community gave us a grant for a little over $127,000 to support operating expenses that would allow for travel to each city and town in Pinal County and tribal areas once a quarter.”

In the five years since the organization acquired the unit, Eagle One has served more than 2,645 people, helping them access information and services to assist them with service-connected disabilities, health care, mental health, employment information and support services.

Its Eagle Landing office, opened in 2017 in downtown Casa Grande, has served more than 14,537 people.

The facility is sponsored and supported by the Pinal County Board of Supervisors and provides a variety of services including access to the state Department of Veterans’ Services for filing service-connected disability claims, connection to Southern Arizona VA Health Care for combat veteran group sessions and counseling, referrals to support services, plus assistance with emergency food boxes/shelter, clothing and shoes, etc. The center also hosts weekly veteran only AA meetings and a support group, Vandenberg said.

The organization continues to grow and add services.

In August 2019, HOHP signed a lease for the property at 5497 W. McCartney Road, a building once occupied by Horizon Health and Wellness. The 10,000-square-foot building was vacant and had been vandalized before it was gifted to HOHP.

The building and its 5 acres are now being repurposed as a veteran transition center to help struggling veterans get back on their feet.

At the time the lease was signed, the amount of work needed to be done to make the building habitable again seemed intimidating, Vandenberg said.

But since taking over the facility, the organization’s small army of volunteers has cleaned up the property, pulled weeds, painted, installed flooring, patched up holes, replaced lighting and worked to give the interior and exterior of the building a bright new look.

Much of the cost to transform the property into a transition center has come from grants and sponsors. Every room on the first floor of the building has been sponsored by organizations or individuals. Sponsorship opportunities are still available for the second floor of the building.

Cook, who recently retired from a 25-year career with Abbott Nutrition, is doing much of the work himself along with volunteers.

Once renovations are finished on the first floor, the organization will begin offering services to homeless veterans and others.

“HOHP is extremely excited to begin and accomplish great things for the veterans in Pinal County through this transition project,” Vandenberg said.

HOHP also maintains an honor guard to recognize veterans or conduct pinning ceremonies for veterans in hospice or who have passed on.

“The board keeps asking what I want to do next,” Vandenberg said. “My hope is that people in the community and the employers will stand behind our veterans and support them.” PW

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Melissa St. Aude is the Arts & Entertainment editor at PinalCentral. She can be reached at mstaude@pinalcentral.com.