Veterans from across Minnesota are served at Perham office
PERHAM -- When veterans and their family members from throughout the state of Minnesota call into the LinkVet help line, they're often surprised to learn that the person assisting them is located in Perham.
Jennifer Arno, a counselor with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Higher Education Veterans Program, explains that many people who call in expect the program's headquarters to be situated somewhere in the metropolitan area. Although perhaps a bit unusual, having the LinkVet call center established in smaller town like Perham says a lot about the area's ability to successfully serve as a statewide hub.
"Our main job is resource and referral," says Arno, who has been with the Perham support center since its inception over two years ago. They handle a wide range of veterans concerns, including many people who just don't know where to go to find assistance. Instead of simply giving out an organization's phone number to a veteran in need of assistance, Arno says the Perham staff provides "warm transfers," connecting callers directly with the proper resource.
Since April 2007, the Online Support Center Team in Perham has used a sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) system to interact with veterans not only in the state, but worldwide. With benefit of the CRM, Minnesota veterans in the United States may call a toll free number or connect online through web chat, ask online and advisor mail tools.
"It's really grown tremendously over the last few years," Arno reports of the program. With the return of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for veterans' assistance continues to rise.
The Higher Education Veterans Programs established by the Minnesota legislature in 2006 are what began a national effort to support veterans, military members and their families as they start their college education.
The legislation allowed the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs (MDVA) to hire Regional Coordinators to work with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to implement veterans friendly policies, create on-campus Veterans Resource Centers and provide information about educational benefits and services. According to Arno, the MDVA funds the veterans' portion of what they do in Perham.
"When students go back to school, especially coming from the military, it can be very confusing," says Arno. The 60 Veterans Resource Centers currently established to assist students are located on both public and private campuses throughout the state of Minnesota.
In 2007, when Donald Pfeffer, State Director for the MDVA Higher Education Veterans Program, began exploring how to provide cyber support to veterans, military members and their families, the Distance Minnesota Support Center in Perham caught his attention.
Distance Minnesota is a consortium operated by Minnesota State Community and Technical College (M-State) in partnership with three other colleges for the purpose of providing online support programs and service. The other three colleges included in Distance Minnesota are Alexandria Technical College, Northland Community and Technical College and Northwest Technical College - Bemidji.
After consulting with officials from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Pfeffer traveled to Perham to see the center and meet the staff known across the state for providing a "virtual" helping hand to individuals interested in getting a college degree.
After meeting the Center's Online Advising Team led by Teresa Theisen and talking with Pat Nordick, Chief Financial Officer for M-State, Pfeffer convinced the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs to engage the Perham staff to initiate an online educational one-stop for veterans interested in getting or earning a higher level college degree.
In the process of bringing the new online education one-stop known as www.MyMilitaryEducation.org into being, Linda Thompson, the Center's Director of Operations, added staff that included Distance Credentialed Counselor, Jennifer Parta Arno, a Perham resident who brought 10 years of working as a community college counselor to the team.
Working directly with Thompson and Arno, Pfeffer and the MDVA Regional Coordinators created a searchable bank of hundreds of useful education-related answers that veterans could access anytime from anywhere. Those visiting the website can also perform an easy search to determine who their regional coordinator is for the specific area they live in.
These coordinators, who are based throughout the state, meet with veterans face-to-face to assist them with college and career questions. Arno explains that the goal is to help the students stay in school.
In 2008, when the contacts served by My Military Education exceeded 26,000, Pfeffer suggested veterans accessing other divisions of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs could benefit from a "virtual" helping hand, also. The idea took root and led the department to transition the Veterans Linkage Line to the Online Support Center in Perham. LinkVet offers veterans help with learning about and accessing education, benefits, claims and outreach and veterans homes services available through the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.
"MyMilitaryEducation.org is a great resource for my Infantry soldiers because it is a one-stop shop with information ranging from education benefits to mental health counseling to family resources. One third of my soldiers are using their educational benefits and many others are looking into doing so.
"MyMilitaryEducation.org is critical to assisting my soldiers by getting them in contact with the subject matter experts they need in order to be successful. If my soldiers aren't successful, I am not successful and MyMilitaryEducation.org helps my soldiers be successful - it is as simple as that," says Captain Daniel Price, Commander, Bravo Company, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment and Aide de Camp to Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard. Price is a former Perham resident.
In addition to the veterans resources already mentioned, the Perham staff also assists veterans with topics such as homeless referrals, CORE referrals - Lutheran Social Services, unemployment issues, nursing home questions, and career counseling and assessments.
Arno tells of how a recent request was sent to LinkVet in the form of an e-mail. The veteran was attempting to locate a fellow soldier and had run into many dead ends, or 'pay for locating' services. After sharing multiple resources, Arno got this message back:
"Thank you for your concern and help in locating my friend. Please pass on my thanks to all involved... Would like you to know that I located my friend in Pipestone, MN and talked with him this morning. The Retirement Service Office at Fort McCoy, WI provided the missing link. Love you guys."
(Jennifer Parta Arno, counselor with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Higher Education Veterans Program, also contributed information for this article.)
About the veterans support center
Today, Minnesota veterans and their families who visit LinkVet online (www.minnesotaveteran.org) or call 1-888-LINK-VET(546-5838) are connecting with the Support Center Team in Perham. "The LinkVet line is a great alternative to our website for those veterans who may not have access to the internet or be comfortable navigating websites," said Michael Pugliese, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Commissioner in the MDVA July newsletter. "This personal touch is a wonderful addition to the website elevating our level of customer service," said Pugliese.
Since the partnership with the LinkVet line four months ago (July 2009), there have been a total of 27,727 contacts with 26,309 of those being self-service on the www.minnesotaveterans.org website while another 1, 418 individuals have accessed direct advisor/counselor assistance through the phone, email or live chat.
The Support Center located in Perham supports veterans and online learners 7 days a week and employs 20 professional staff members. The veterans primary support team at the Support Center includes Parta Arno, Megan Adamczyk and Jana Berube who are area residents and Mary Anderson who drives in from the Park Rapids area.
Their back up staff includes other Perham area residents (Kristi Karels, Diane Hanson) and individuals residing in surrounding communities (Nicole Siefert, Connie Grant, Kim Imdieke, Amy McIntosh, Sue Holmer, Michelle Blaney, Shawnette Hurtig, Rebecca Fischer Walvante, Cathy Roberts, Paul Drange and Carla Johanson.)
The Online Support Center has received several national awards, including the 2007 WOW Award (WCET Outstanding Work), the 2008 WOW in Marketing Award and the 2009 Silver Excellence Award from Gartner and 1 to 1 Media for Using a CRM to Optimize the Customer Experience.
The center also supports Distance Minnesota, Minnesota Online, Minnesota Learning Commons, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Business and Industry Services, Online College in the High School, eFolio MN, eFolioWorld and eFolioPA.