Giving back to those who have served

For the third year, Steelers players are leading the Steelers Social Justice Grant program. Players are making donations to local organizations that are having an impact on the community, and the Steelers are matching the donations. The Steelers kicked off the 2020 Steelers Social Justice Grant program in December, and it continues today with Alejandro Villanueva making a difference in the community.

Alejandro Villanueva is no stranger to helping those in the veteran community in the Pittsburgh area.

It's in his blood, as the former Army Ranger connects with them in a manner not many others can.

Whether it's visiting with veterans at the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center, or taking part in events the Steelers host to recognize veterans, Villanueva does his part whenever he can to spend time with veterans, listening to their stories, uplifting them, and giving back in any way he can.

And he doesn't stop there.

Through the Steelers Social Justice Grant program, a program which is led by the players in an effort to engage with various factions, including law enforcement, charitable organizations, military and more to strengthen the community at large, Villanueva is making a difference. He has donated $2,500 to Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard and $2,500 to VA Pittsburgh Fisher House, with the Steelers matching the donations and each organization receiving $5,000.

"This means everything," said Rob Hamilton, executive director of Veterans Place. "Just the simple fact that someone who served our country, and knows what it's like to put yourself on the line for our country, and he still continues to serve on this level, speaks volumes to our staff, our board, and even more the veterans we serve in the community at large. With all of the success he has with the Steelers, the fact that he continues to engage with the veteran population, the at-risk veteran population that many quite honestly forget about. The fact that he keeps that in the forefront of his mind is special.

"And the Steelers organization as well. I work with a lot of different organizations and just being able to pick up the phone and call the team for support, it's special. On Veterans Day, Al and some of the Steelers recorded messages for our veterans and we played that for them. You could see their response live and it was amazing. It all means so much."

Veterans Place, which first opened in 1996, has a mission to empower veterans' transition from homeless to home, ending the cycle of homelessness, and to assist all at-risk veterans to become engaged, valuable citizens who contribute to their communities. Their complex consists of 13 townhouses, with 48 apartments where they house veterans, many of them homeless, as they help them transition to a better lifestyle.

"We go out to the streets every day and provide street outreach to veterans who are at-risk or homeless and we bring them back to Veterans Place where they get breakfast, lunch, supportive services, we have shower facilities, laundry facilities, a computer lab, a smart classroom, commercial kitchen" said Hamilton. "We also provide supportive services for anyone who might be dealing with substance abuse, mental health and more. We also have a Dept. of Labor employment grant, which is the called the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program and we serve veterans in four countries, Allegheny, Butler, Westmoreland and Fayette."

On a yearly basis, Veterans Place serves 500 veterans, providing around 5,000 meals. And they make their money go far, with 92 cents on the dollar going directly to the veterans' services.

Like so many, they faced challenges over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While a lot of organizations were forced to shut their doors at the onset of the pandemic, staying open was paramount for Veterans Place.

"We were one of the only veterans' organizations here still able to remain open, meeting them face to face, allowing them to still come on campus, still being staffed 24/7 and serving our veterans," said Hamilton. "Making sure the veterans were safe and taken care of, we were still making sure we serviced them with the needs they had. Food insecurity became a problem. Unemployment was an issue. It also really took a toll on the mental health of our veterans."

Since July they have placed over 60 veterans in permanent employment where they are making over minimum wage, and are also working with other organizations, including Heinz Field, to help veterans with varying employment when the pandemic gets under control.

"At Veterans Place, all of our housing is on one site so we were able to stay connected, isolate from the public, but not in a bad way, in a way to protect our veterans and provide a conducive environment in a way they could thrive," said Hamilton. "One of the things we had to do was install computers with Zoom access in all of the apartments so the veterans could access virtual support groups, virtual mental health care with the VA and private entities. We were able to do other virtual meetings as well."

For those at VA Pittsburgh Fisher House, Villanueva is someone who has been in their corner for a while.

"He is an amazing person." said Mary Ellen Austin, a board member with Friends of the Pittsburgh Fisher House, whose son played football with Villanueva at West Point. "He comes over (pre-pandemic) to the VA to visit with the veterans. He never brought people with him, didn't make a big deal about it, but just talked to the veterans. He truly has a heart for the veterans. He is not doing it for himself, he isn't making a fanfare. He is a special person. He is so soft-spoken. He is a truly special person.

"We have a capital campaign right now and he filmed something for our video. When I send the video to people, reaching out to donors we never had to before, and I always mention that Alejandro Villanueva from the Steelers is in there. People really relate to him, especially any with a military connection. He has been a tremendous gift to us.

"The Steelers are the same. This town's relationship with the Steelers is amazing to me. I didn't grow up in Pittsburgh but have been here for 40 years. The relationship this community has with the Steelers is special. When you say Pittsburgh, Steelers is the next word I think of."

The Pittsburgh Fisher House opened in 2012, one of 90 in the country founded and built by the Fisher Foundation on VA or military property, to serve as a home away from home for families of veterans who are undergoing surgery or medical treatment at veterans facilities, including the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center. It's a place where they can live while their family member is in the hospital, where they can find comfort and get support from the staff and others in similar circumstances.

"Friends of the Pittsburgh Fisher House is a group that works with Fisher House to help raise funds, which are used for anything from providing the comforts of home at the facility to a capital campaign for a second Fisher House in the Pittsburgh area," said Austin. "Our sole purpose is to raise money for the house. We are raising money for the new house to be built. In the current house we provide food and the like, and if the current house is full we provide other lodging. The VA is involved because once the house is built, the structure is turned over to the VA or the Dept. of Defense.

"The Friends of the Pittsburgh Fisher House, the money we raise goes to helping the guests. When people have a loved one at the hospital, if they live 50 miles from the house, they can stay at the Fisher House for free. They stay as long as they need to. The VA in Pittsburgh does transplants, so we have people staying for eight months. Some stay one night."

Since the Pittsburgh Fisher House opened, they have housed families for a total of more than 35,000 nights of stay, while accommodating over 5,800 families, saving them a combined $3.5 million dollars in overall expenses.

The house has 10 rooms, which is why they are opening a second location, with each room designed to make family members feel comfortable.

"Part of the Fisher House mission is to not just make it a place to stay, but a beautiful place to stay," said Austin. "I volunteer there too, and I unlocked the door for one lady, and she started crying and said she never stayed anywhere that nice. It's really a special place. The other awesome thing about the house is there a community kitchen. We make sure it's stuffed with food every week. When they come back from the hospital there is food everywhere, they can make dinner. One of the great things is the families can get to know each other, support each other."

Over the past year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the VA stopped doing surgeries, therefore decreasing the number of families staying at the Fisher House. But it still has been used. They have housed 'mission critical staff,' including direct patient care providers and those assisting with the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

"If someone had a loved one that was dying that they allowed family into the hospital and Fisher House, we took care of them," said Austin. "They have been housing mission critical staff during the pandemic."

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