For Ely Ross, giving back to military veterans in the nation’s capital is personal.
Ross, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1998, completed tours in Iraq and Southeast Asia before leaving the service in 2008 and enrolling in law school.
Now the director of veterans affairs the mayor of Washington, D.C., Ross and other volunteers are partaking in the September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance by helping refurbish the Southeast Veterans Service Center, a local clinic and housing facility.
“9/11 was a day we all remember where we were, and for a lot of us, it is the reason we stepped forward and wanted to defend our country and serve our communities,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for us all to pause, even if you haven’t worn a uniform, and say, ‘I want to help my community.’”
On this sunny Saturday in Washington, dozens of volunteers are pulling weeds and placing mulch on the grounds around the facility’s front entrance.
Others, like 23-year-old Ariel Greenaway, are inside, meticulously painting doors and hallways.
“For me, it’s something I’ve always been a part of, doing service,” says Greenaway, a former AmeriCorps volunteer. “The fact that we get to do that for our vets, who give so much already, their lives, time and abilities, just to keep us safe. I just want to continually be a part of that.”
Officials say access to transitional housing, which the center provides, is crucial in helping get the district’s homeless veterans off the streets and into more permanent living situations.
LeRoy Smith, a former Marine who served in Vietnam in the late 1960s, has lived in both transitional and independent housing units provided at the facility.
Like many veterans, he had difficulty obtaining medical benefits and navigating a complex health care system.
“I was never actually on the streets, never had drug problems, but people have hard times and this has really helped me out," says Smith, now 72. “Any vet that’s out there, that needs help, come to one of these places and they’ll help you out.
Officials say service projects are important to the community, helping bridge gaps between veterans and their civilian neighbors.
Terry Snead, who says he was homeless for nearly a decade, now uses his experience to help veterans in the city get back on their feet.
“When you invest back in people, this is what you get,” says Snead, a lifelong district resident. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The tangible impact of service projects that benefit veterans, particularly around a significant anniversary such as 9/11, is part of what keeps volunteers coming back, says Delano Hunter, chief service officer of the District of Columbia.
“It’s folks like these veterans, who’ve honorably served and fought, sacrificed their lives, and in some cases their health," says Hunter. “It’s incumbent on us to do what we can to ensure that they have the resources to be successful.”