COVID-19 Partner Profile: United Veterans of Michigan

United Way for Southeastern Michigan and our partners work to ensure that our region’s most vulnerable families have the support they need to weather the short- and long-term impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. The COVID-19 Community Response Fund allows us to rapidly deploy funds to organizations that are working tirelessly to help individuals and families access food, shelter, health care and other critical resources.

As of May 14, more than $13 million had been awarded to nearly 500 organizations.

We’ll continue to share more stories of how together, we’re helping families in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties weather this crisis. Visit our blog to learn more about how we’re responding.

Spotlight on United Veterans of Michigan

Many veterans face a unique set of obstacles after their time in the service. The return to civilian life can be difficult and is sometimes compounded by physical and mental health challenges and economic hardships, all of which can be magnified by a global pandemic.

“It’s their health, it’s their family, it’s their livelihood — it’s all at risk with COVID-19,” said Edwin Steele, founder of United Veterans of Michigan (UVM).

Edwin founded the nonprofit in 2018 to offer active-duty military and veterans an opportunity for nature-based relaxation and relief from the everyday stresses while connecting them to resources like food, housing and medical equipment.

For those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nature can be particularly therapeutic. Edwin’s father Robert Steele, a Vietnam veteran, struggled for years with PTSD before he died. He continues to be a source of inspiration for the group’s mission.

A new kind of battle

In April, Michigan’s unemployment rate rose to 22.7 percent – an all-time high. The impact is felt deeply in a region where nearly half of residents were already struggling to meet their basic needs.

UVM typically takes groups of veterans on hunting and fishing trips across Michigan. In 2019, UVM took veterans on more than 100 fishing trips and nearly 40 hunting trips.

“It’s like when they get out there in nature, they just relax. They open up and start talking and we’re able to figure out the areas where they need help.”

But since COVID-19 hit the region, they have focused solely on ensuring basic needs are met. A grant from United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s COVID-19 Community Response Fund allowed the organization to assist with bill payments for 22 veterans who lost work due to business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders.

“Just about every veteran I know has lost their job,” Edwin said. “The only ones who are still employed are nurses, health care workers and sanitation workers.”

Before the pandemic hit, Edwin worked as a project manager at a Tier-1 automotive supplier. His job wasn’t spared in the wave of COVID-19 layoffs. Still, his focus remains on helping others.

“It’s hard because I’m not the kind of person who can keep still,” he said. “I have to keep busy and there are a lot more people who need help right now.”

A true brotherhood

Last year, Robert Brown, an air force veteran, suffered a back injury that left him in a wheelchair. UVM volunteers stepped in and built a wheelchair ramp at his home.

Robert was “totally amazed” that the group would build a wheelchair ramp for him. “I didn’t know any of those guys. It meant the world to me that they would do that for me.”

Now that he’s nearly recovered, Robert was looking forward to volunteering with UVM to assist other veterans.

“This virus hit and kind of derailed everything again,” he said. “But they helped me out and I’m willing to help them whenever they call.”

Better days ahead

Many of the organization’s large group trips and events remain on hold. In the meantime, Edwin is exploring ways to take veterans out on the water one at a time.

“We’ll have to evolve a bit to make sure it’s safe for everyone.”

A recent message he shared on the group’s Facebook page best sums up his goals: “Hopefully we will be able to get back to life as normal soon and start getting y’all out on the water and into the woods!”