Friday, February 1, 2019

A Spiritual Being Having an Earthly Experience

  • 18.8 million Veterans live in the United States. 
  • 725,028 veterans and 89,303 active duty military personnel call Virginia their home.
  • Virginia is one of only six states with veteran populations greater than 10% of their total adult population. 

Even with a multitude of federal and state programs, the needs of these veterans often go unmet. Who helps veterans who cannot get to the VA? Who helps incarcerated veterans? Who helps veterans who cannot help themselves?

Linwood Alford. That’s who.
“I’m not a religious person,” says Linwood, “I’m a spiritual being having an earthly experience.” Religious, spiritual or earthly, Linwood’s life and work are other worldly. He is a big-hearted man with a big-hearted man’s presence. He is willing to go where he is needed, and to do the work that needs to be done: Linwood says he was called to help his fellow veterans.

Linwood was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia and graduated from John Marshall High School. From high school he joined the military, and from there he went to work for the Veterans Administration in Atlanta. His “call” came in 2006. He returned to Richmond, and immediately started the Open Door Resource Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping veterans get the benefits and services they need and are entitled to. 

“I started college, but never finished. When I came back to Richmond I needed to finish,” Linwood said. “I came to Reynolds to get a Substance Abuse Certificate. I was half way through the classes when another student said I should get a Human Services Degree. He told me it didn’t take that much more work. I was half way through those classes when Kevin Holder [Adjunct Faculty – Humanities & Social Sciences] told me I should get my bachelor’s degree, he said it didn’t take much more work. Bluefield College had a program. I didn’t want to get another degree, and I told Kevin that.” 

Linwood graduated from Reynolds Community College with honors in May 2016 with an AAS in Human Services and a Career Studies Certificate in Substance Abuse Counseling. “I did not want to get another degree.” But off to Bluefield he went anyway, earning his BS in Human Services, with honors, in December of 2016. The amount of education Linwood took on in a short time was amazing, but consider, the entire time he was in school, Linwood was also working full time at Open Door during the week, and then on weekends he was working as a Resident Counselor. In addition to being dedicated, spiritual being must also be tireless.

“I don’t know if I would be where I am today without Reynolds,” Linwood gets emotional when he talks about his achievements. “They helped me, encouraged me, and set me on my way. I had the pleasure of being the first recipient of the Eva Hardy Entrepreneur Award towards my education in the amount of $3,500. This was made possible through The Virginia Foundation for Community College Education with the assistance of Ms. Anne McCaffrey, Director of Community Engagements. They certainly fine-tuned my plans. They certainly fine-tuned my plans. The professors were all a great, great help. Being able to help veterans who need disability has been so rewarding. God has blessed me in so many ways.”

After 13 years of operation, Open Door has over 700 clients. “Word of mouth is how people come,” Linwood says. “A lot of them call their kin for help, and we help.” Word of mouth has brought help from the community, too. Everything at Open Door has been donated - desks, chairs, tables, even 70 computers. Open Door has now outgrown its original space. Its offices are overflowing and Linwood continues to expand. His vision of what should come next is crystal clear: “What I need now is a building to put all of this in. I would love to have a three or four story building. The first floor would be intake, the second floor would be classrooms and offices, the third for temporary housing, and the fourth a recreation area.”

“At this time we are moving away from veteran benefits to mental health,” Linwood says. “The greatest need of our veterans today is mental health services. One of the largest populations in our jails is veterans. There are so many veterans they have their own pods. We go out to the prisons to talk with them and find out what they need. They may have a 100% mental disability, but they only get 10% while they are incarcerated. When they get out they have to file paperwork and ask to be reinstated. We help with that, too.”

“There is a time and season for everything,” Linwood notes, “and it is time for us to help veterans with mental health issues. I want to have classes to help them learn how to move through the VA system. Many vets don’t know about, and if they do, they don’t know how to navigate it.”

Linwood feels just as strongly about helping and empowering students, especially Reynolds students. Every semester he gives internships to two Reynolds students seeking degrees or certificates in health and human services. This hands-on experience is a great supplement to their education. 

Linwood explains: “They learn the structure of the organization first, then they start working cases, they learn how to do intake, they learn all about benefits. They actually go in to the prisons and jails and work with the veterans.” Raymond Ward was an Open Door intern during his last semester at Reynolds in the spring of 2018. He is now a Reynolds graduate, he works for Linwood, and he is attending Virginia State University to get his degree in social work.

Spiritual? Earthly? Linwood Alford is many things. He is a dedicated, compassionate defender of our veterans who fought for us, but are now unable to fight for themselves. He is a staunch advocate of education, and its transformative powers. He is a mentor and a coach. But at the core of it all, Linwood is, as he says, a spiritual being willing to answer life’s most pressing, earthly calls, and to act.

Statistics: US Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, National Conference of State Legislatures.