Mt. Carmel and its partners provided 1,200 turkeys and 100 turkey baskets with trimmings during Operation Turkey for Troops in November 2018.
With the help of more than a hundred community partners, the Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center strives to be a beacon of support for veterans and their families—especially critical in a county in which veterans and their loved ones make up nearly a quarter of the population. The center’s transition and wellness services encompass job placement, benefits support, legal aid, behavioral health, and more.
The Center, which opened in 2016, is the result of a vision by Jay Cimino, president and CEO of the Phil Long auto dealerships, to aid the veteran population. It was a vision shared by Bob McLaughlin, who was garrison commander at Fort Carson when he first met Cimino; they became “instant friends” at that 2009 meeting, McLaughlin recalls.
While at Fort Carson, McLaughlin spearheaded several programs to help soldiers and their families cope with multiple deployments as well as wounds both visible and not; Cimino wanted to take a similar mind, body, and spirit approach to aiding veterans. At Cimino’s urging, McLaughlin ended his Army career a year earlier than planned, at 29 years, to bring that vision to life with Mt. Carmel. McLaughlin now serves as chief operating officer of the center; Cimino is chairman of the board, and daughter Gina Cimino is vice chair.
Before launching, they needed a clearly defined mission and a plan. “We spent a lot of time at the white board,” McLaughlin says.
And they needed a home for Mt. Carmel, a building to house the center’s wraparound services. “Normally, in transition, there’s enough stress that people don’t want to be bounced around from one place to another,” McLaughlin says. So Cimino bought KOAA-TV’s former broadcast facility on Communication Circle and had it refurbished.
At the start, McLaughlin says, Cimino told him “a couple of key things. ‘You can’t do it without partners. And once you open the doors, Colonel, you own their lives.’ Which is a pretty strong statement.”
Behavioral health has become the most used service, followed by employment services. The center averages 34 new clients a week and has helped with more than 1,000 job placements. “We have grown tremendously in our partners who want to hire veterans,” McLaughlin says.
Grants provide about 60% of the funding; philanthropic partners, such as the El Pomar Foundation, are also critical. An annual golf tournament serves as the center’s biggest fundraiser.
“In this community, we see sacrifice every day, year after year,” Cimino said in a statement. “Families are weathering tough challenges related to a loved one’s military service. Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center was established to provide a hand up to our veterans, military, and their families. Veterans and their families are people who put their lives on hold to serve the nation. Providing help with a job and other wraparound services is the very least we can do; our team is very proud of the work we do at Mt. Carmel.”
Since opening the doors, “everything here has evolved to a certain extent,” McLaughlin says. Behavioral health is a prime example; it has grown from talk therapy to include a gateway program that provides initial assessments; retreats for individuals, couples, families, and youths; and an alternative therapy program with equine therapy, art therapy, tai chi, and more.
“The alternative therapy is very important,” McLaughlin says. In trying to help veterans with those invisible wounds, he says, “we’ve been overmedicating.”
Moving forward, one area Mt. Carmel wants to focus more on is housing, from emergency and transitional housing to permanent, McLaughlin says. “Housing is such a big challenge,” he says, noting a lack of affordable housing in the Springs. Veterans Climb, in partnership with Pikes Peak Community College and the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, is a program aimed at preventing homelessness through case management and community collaboration.
McLaughlin points to the high suicide rate among veterans—an average of 22 deaths a day. “One of the things that causes suicide,” he says, “is hopelessness. What we try to do every day is create hope.”