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Coming Together for Santa Barbara County's Veterans

Sarge and Matt Sumethasorn, Program Manager for Doctors Without Walls

Joel Studebaker's grandfather was an Army veteran from World War I. His father was an Army Air Force veteran from World War II. Many of his friends are veterans from the Vietnam War. He has seen the psychological, physical and emotional toll that war has on people he loves and respects, which is why he decided that he needed to do something about it.

“I give to an organization that focuses on supporting Vietnam veterans through my donor designated fund with the Santa Barbara Foundation,” said Studebaker. “Many of my friends came back from Vietnam and received little to no support or even a thank you for their service, and I thought, that just isn’t right. I hope that with my small contribution, a few more veterans are able to get the help that they need.”

Vietnam veterans are currently one of the largest patient populations that U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) serves. Simultaneously, however, post-9/11 veterans are starting to use VA services at record rates. While the overall veteran population is declining, the simultaneous demand for services by these two veteran populations is draining VA resources and leaving a large gap in veteran care. This gap has made the role of local nonprofit organizations, like Doctors Without Walls, also known as Santa Barbara Street Medicine, even more important in addressing veteran care.

“Many of the veterans who we see do not know all of the services that they are entitled to,” said Maria Long, Executive Director of Doctors Without Walls. “The system is so overrun that we end up being one of their last hopes in terms of getting care.”

A nurse, two doctors, a social worker and a priest founded Doctors Without Walls in 2005 with the goal of treating homeless people who were dying on the street in Isla Vista. Today, it has evolved to mimic Dr. Jim Withers’ Street Medicine model that advocates bringing medicine and compassion to the people who need it. Through its programs, Doctors Without Walls serves homeless men and women throughout Santa Barbara County, 15 percent of whom are veterans. In 2017, Doctors Without Walls received a Core Support for Basic Needs Grant and Express Grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation to continue expanding its work and services to reach vulnerable populations across the community, such as by furthering its reach in Lompoc.

“The other day, one of the patients we see frequently who is a veteran, Sarge, agreed to talk to me about his life if I bought him his favorite sandwich from Subway,” said Long. “He is a third generation veteran and served 38 months in Vietnam, where he says he witnessed atrocities he would never wish on anyone. While he suffers from PTSD and cannot find housing, he still believes that God has a plan for everyone and it won’t always be this way. It is amazing what you can find out by just sitting down and having a sandwich with someone and this kind of trust helps in guiding them to the appropriate medical care.”

Doctors Without Walls is just one of the many organizations in the Santa Barbara County that is trying to expand its services to meet the specific needs of veterans. For example, organizations like Good Samaritan Shelter Services and the Salvation Army are also working to address housing and health care needs of veterans. However, despite these efforts, the recently released Santa Barbara County Veterans Assessment highlighted that a lack of coordination between agencies to satisfy the growing need for services by the 23,000 veterans that reside in the county. This report was commissioned by the Santa Barbara Foundation to determine how the county can better serve those who have served.

“Over three years ago, I was doing research for a donor who wanted to support veterans issues and I realized that there were many gaps in veteran services in Santa Barbara County,” said Kathy Simas, North County Director for the Santa Barbara Foundation. “I believe it is the foundation’s role to organize and lead efforts that will benefit the community, such as helping veterans, and the first step of that was to do an assessment. We anticipate that the information gleaned from this assessment will allow the development of a set of recommendations and tools that will inform community leaders interested in supporting veterans services throughout Santa Barbara County.”

The Santa Barbara County Veterans Assessment was released on November 9, 2017, and revealed that, while the county has fewer veterans than other counties in California, it faces big obstacles in terms of access to resources. For example, due to fragmentation of services and the lack of awareness of resources, many veterans end up traveling to bigger cities to get much needed care. To address these challenges, the report provides seven recommendations for Santa Barbara County leaders to reference in order to improve accessibility and care for its veteran population.

To read the full report, please visit the webpage. For more information about the Santa Barbara Foundation, please contact Kathy Simas at
North County Headquarters:  (805) 346-6123  |   2625 S. Miller Street, Suite 101, Santa Maria, CA 93455
South County Headquarters:  (805) 963-1873  |  1111 Chapala Street, Suite 200, Santa Barbara, CA 93101