Five Questions With: Erik B. Wallin

Executive director and general counsel for Operation Stand Down Rhode Island talks about the nonprofit’s work. More

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Five Questions With: Erik B. Wallin

"Above all else, housing is the first and most critical mission of Operation Stand Down Rhode Island. "
Posted 8/16/13

Erik B. Wallin became executive director and general counsel for Operation Stand Down Rhode Island Inc. in Johnston in 2011.

A native Rhode Islander, after graduating from Roger Williams University School of Law in 2007, Mr. Wallin joined the United States Air Force and served as a captain in the Department of the Judge Advocate General. He returned to Rhode Island and was appointed a Special Assistant Attorney General in the Rhode Island Department of Attorney General.

After running as the Republican candidate for Rhode Island Attorney General in 2010, Wallin opened his own law practice and also served on the board of directors of OSDRI.

PBN: Operation Stand Down Rhode Island Inc. combats homelessness among U.S. veterans by providing housing, educational, and financial resources, and linking them to human resources and social services. Of all these things, which is the most important effort the agency makes on behalf of homeless vets, and how is it achieved?

WALLIN: Above all else, housing is the first and most critical mission of Operation Stand Down Rhode Island. When you think about it, a person experiencing or at-risk of homelessness cannot address the underlying issues that brought them to that point. This is why OSDRI utilizes a “housing first model.” Once the veteran is stably housed in either an OSDRI residence or in the community, our case managers, who themselves are veterans, work closely with the client to provide them a full complement of supportive services. These services include employment training and education assistance, coordinating treatment for physical or mental health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder , providing benefit counseling and any other need they require to regain stability in their lives.

PBN: How does service on the board of directors differ from being executive director?

WALLIN: Both are very important roles but the primary difference is the day-to-day operational responsibilities. Operation Stand Down Rhode Island owns and operates over 50 units of permanent and transitional housing. It provides supportive services to all of its residents and then hundreds more who it services through various housing and employment training programs. The issues that come across my desk are diverse but all have one common denominator. Every decision that is made ultimately impacts the life of a veteran both on the micro and macro level. If the organization fails then it will not be there to help the next generation of veterans. If it fails a veteran, than we have let down someone who was at one time counted on us all to do their job right, namely protect our freedom.

PBN: In what ways does your legal background inform the work you do now for OSDRI as both executive director and general counsel?

WALLIN: Nonprofits face as many legal issues as any other organization does ranging from compliance with governmental rules and regulations to human resources. Having the legal experience to identify and address them is important.

Equally as important, my legal background has added an additional focus to the work OSDRI does on behalf of veterans. Veterans face many legal issues including some resulting from trauma they have experienced during military service. Since coming to Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, I have put a greater focus on addressing these issues.

At the same time, our judiciary has also become much more sensitive to veteran issues. Chief Judge Jeanne E. LaFazia of the Rhode Island District Court, Chief Magistrate William R. Guglietta of the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s Office have all supported the Courts’ participation at Stand Down Weekend, which is our major Annual Outreach event for homeless and at – risk veterans. Our 20th annual Stand Down Weekend will occur this Sept. 20-22.

PBN: What is the biggest obstacle for veterans seeking to return to civilian life and how does OSDRI help them overcome it?

WALLIN: One of the biggest obstacles for veterans returning to civilian life is employment. Rhode Island veterans have faced a higher unemployment rate than their civilian counter parts. That is true nationally as well. Throughout America’s history it has been our military members’ training, values, leadership, teamwork and “can do attitude” that carried our nation through the greatest challenges of our times. Despite these invaluable attributes, our veterans face many challenges in reintegrating into the workforce, especially those that are homeless. These challenges include limited “in-demand” work skills, unstable housing and emotional issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of these issues can be overcome and that is why Operation Stand Down Rhode Island emphasizes addressing the “total veteran”. All of our employees are either veterans or have family members who are. With over 138 years of military experience we understand what the problems are and how to fix them.

PBN: You recently received a $210,000 grant to help 75 homeless women vets find employment. How are you helping them reach that goal?

WALLIN: This grant, in combination with a similar $300,000 employment and training grant we received last month for all homeless and at-risk veterans will permit Operation Stand Down Rhode Island to outreach to find the veterans most in need and then assess them to determine what is required to make them “Job Ready.” Once that assessment is done, veterans will have access to a range of services including but not limited to direct placements into employment, on-the-job and classroom training, certificate and licensure classes and the case management necessary to remove the obstacles like housing. We are strongly encouraging employers who are interested in becoming partners with OSDRI to reach out to us. Veterans make great employees and the bottom line is; hiring a veteran is “good for the bottom line.”

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