Yale alumni, staff, students, and affiliates recently participated in a Yale Day of Service program organized by the Yale Veterans Association, an alumni shared interest group, in collaboration with the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Service at the West Haven VA Medical Center in West Haven, Conn.

This annual program offered volunteers the opportunity to connect and engage with visually impaired military veterans who were at the West Haven VA undergoing rehabilitative and adaptive training. Volunteers worked with VA staff to arrange a barbecue, social activities, and interactive games for the veterans. They also received information and instruction on ways to best communicate with and assist people with visual disabilities.

Glen Gechlik ’05 MBA, a U.S. Air Force veteran and coordinator of Yale Day of Service at the West Haven VA Medical Center, chats with Stephanie Spaulding ’03 MA. (Photo: Henry Kwan)

Glen Gechlik ’05 MBA, the associate chief of staff of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, a board member of the Yale Veterans Association, and a U.S. Air Force Veteran, who spearheaded this Day of Service event in 2012 and continues to serve as the program coordinator, affirmed that all parties involved with this service initiative benefit from the long-standing collaboration.

“Volunteers get to interact with veterans and see the human side of the people who serve in our armed services,” he said. “There are volunteers who are veterans themselves, but there are also those who have not served and do not have veterans in their families, and this is an excellent opportunity to help veterans in need.”

He added that the program was appreciated by veterans, volunteers, and organizers alike.

“This was a lot of fun and the veterans really enjoyed it,” he said, mentioning that the program could be expanded further. “There is always room for more people if they want to volunteer.”

Will Clancy (blue cap), a retired U.S. Army veteran and Yale Law School student, joins veterans in a game of cornhole during Yale Day of Service at the West Haven VA Medical Center. (Photo: Henry Kwan)

Will Clancy, a Yale Law School student and retired U.S. Army sergeant major whose military career included service in the Special Forces (Green Berets), said that volunteering with Day of Service at the West Haven VA held special meaning for him.

“I participate as a way to give back to the two institutions that have had the greatest impact on my life—the U.S. military and Yale,” he said. “For me, it was a grounding experience, a reminder that Yale, and other great American institutions, was founded to make the world a better place—and we have an ongoing responsibility to engage in our local communities toward that end.”

Clancy, who hails from Saratoga County in upstate New York and comes from a family with a rich history of military service going back to World War II, noted what an honor it was to engage and connect with the veterans.

“I hope they understand how much our community appreciates their service,” he said. “And that they feel seen and valued, particularly by a younger generation of veterans.”

Rick Tilghman ’67 (left), a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, enjoys a game of cornhole with veterans during Yale Day of Service at the West Haven VA Medical Center. (Photo: Henry Kwan)

Rick Tilghman ’67, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran whose service included a tour in Vietnam, was unambiguous in expressing his motivation for volunteering with this Day of Service event.

“I decided to participate because the program was focused on veterans,” he said.

Tilghman, a managing director at a service-disabled veteran-owned banking and financial services firm based in Stamford, Conn., said he was inspired by the openness and adaptability of the veterans.

“I was impressed with the comradery of the veterans and their eagerness to play cornhole,” he said. “I hope they had a fun time outside of their ‘home room’ and enjoyed talking with us.”

Marty Platt, a U.S. Army veteran who also served in Vietnam and is a retired Yale staff member who continues to work at the university on a casual basis, echoed the importance of supporting fellow veterans.

Marty Platt (beige cap), a U.S. Army veteran and retired-active Yale staff member, joins VA staff in preparing hamburgers and hot dogs for a barbecue during Yale Day of Service at the West Haven VA Medical Center. (Photo: Henry Kwan)

“As a veteran, I feel it is important to reach out and help out any and all veterans, especially veterans with disabilities,” he said. “The time with the veterans, hearing their stories and learning about their military experiences, was an amazing time.”

Platt added that interacting with the veterans at the West Haven VA served as a reminder of the hardships and sacrifices that sometimes comes with military service.

“Sitting with the veterans and listening to the bantering that went on between them, there is some goodness in watching that,” he said. “To me, it was a reminder that whatever I am going through is nothing compared to what they deal with on a daily basis.”

Tamika Hollis, a community engagement project manager at the Yale School of Medicine and the spouse of a retired U.S. Army veteran, related how much she appreciated participating in this Day of Service program at the West Haven VA for the first time.

Tamika Hollis, Yale staff member and spouse of a retired U.S. Army veteran, chats with a veteran during Yale Day of Service at the West Haven VA Medical Center. (Photo: Henry Kwan)

“I learned and laughed, and felt connected to the veterans in the few hours we were together,” she said. “I also gained insight into the unique challenges they face daily—witnessing their resilience and determination left a profound impact on me.”

Hollis, whose father-in-law was a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, emphasized the value that could be derived from talking to and learning from military veterans.

“From my conversations with the veterans, I received from them the invaluable reminder to never take anything for granted and approach life with gratitude for the opportunities and privileges that we often overlook,” she said.

Having participated in other Day of Service programs in prior years, Hollis added that the benefits of volunteering reverberate beyond the immediate parties.

“Volunteering for Yale Day of Service not only serves the needs of the organizations involved, it also fosters a deeper connection to the larger community,” she said.

Susan Caplan ’10 PhD, whose late father was a World War II veteran who, after being wounded in France, was sent to Yale for a crash course in Japanese and was later stationed in prisoner-of-war camps in Korea, recounted the bond she shared with Larry, a retired veteran with 30 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Susan Caplan ’10 PhD receives a hug from a veteran during Yale Day of Service at the West Haven VA Medical Center. (Photo: Henry Kwan)

“I spent the most time talking with him because he was wearing a sweatshirt from a university where I previously worked, so we immediately had that connection,” she said. “And what made the event impactful for me was the chance to connect with people whose lived experiences were very different from my own.”

Caplan expressed her hope that the veterans enjoyed meeting and getting to know her and the other volunteers as much as they enjoyed interacting with them.

“I hope their experience was similar to mine,” she said. “That through humor, shared stories, and gingerly discussing politics – one of my favorite topics – that we enjoyed meeting and spending time with one another!”

According to Mara Balk, associate director of volunteer engagement at the Yale Alumni Association and staff point person for Yale Day of Service, programs like these constitute a natural extension of Yale’s mission to educate and cultivate global leaders.

“Service is a key pillar in the mission of Yale as an institution that encourages members of the community to become active, productive contributors to society,” she said. “Yale Day of Service helps foster relationships that lead to meaningful connections among alumni, with their communities, and to the University.”

Balk emphasized that volunteer engagement has a huge impact on the groups that are the beneficiaries and the volunteers themselves—and that Day of Service aims to foster reciprocal relationships that live beyond the ‘day’ itself.

“First and foremost, I hope volunteers have a positive experience with their Yale Day of Service projects,” she said. “And that these positive experiences lead to additional opportunities for engagement. Ultimately, the goals of Yale Day of Service are to provide the tools and support for alumni and their communities to plant seeds, and to help them cultivate growth over time. That is where we start to see the long-term impact.”