Nova Scotia

Veterans 'to get real help' as organization opens drop-in centre in Dartmouth

Veterans Emergency Transition Services Canada is opening a new drop-in centre for veterans and their families in an effort to help people who may be struggling after leaving the military.

Jim and Debbie Lowther hope to help veterans and their families transition out of the military

Jim and Debbie Lowther, who founded VETS Canada, outside the organization's Dartmouth drop-in and support centre. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Jim Lowther remembers feeling very alone after handing in his military ID in 2005.

The former soldier served two tours of duty in Bosnia before being medically discharged from the Canadian Forces.

He and his wife, Debbie Lowther, have spent the past nine years trying to assist others navigate the challenges that go with leaving the military through the charity they founded — Veterans Emergency Transition Services Canada. 

On Monday, the group's first drop-in centre in Atlantic Canada is opening its doors in downtown Dartmouth.

"Veterans can come in and relax and enjoy that whole peer support thing that we had when we were in the military. And I know that the veterans that come through the door are going to get real help," he said. 

The help VETS Canada offers ranges from food cards to mortgage payments and money to cover rent or utilities. The aim is to give people a hand before they end up homeless. 

"The last thing a veteran wants is to go and ask for help and then be pushed off to a third party," Jim Lowther said. "We try to say yes to whatever we can do to help the veteran … We try to offer something."

The Lowthers said it's not unusual to find people on the brink.

Organization assists 16 veterans

Currently, the organization is assisting 16 veterans in Nova Scotia. One woman is now in a hotel due to unexpected problems at her apartment.

Since 2014, the organization estimates it has worked with 300 veterans of all ages in Nova Scotia. Often they're people in their mid-40s to mid-50s, some of whom are grappling with moving forward after physical and psychological injuries curtailed their time in the military.

"Veterans who have kind of finished their career and they've struggled for a little bit and [are] trying to find their footing," Debbie Lowther said. 

The centre on Ochterloney Street in Dartmouth will have a grand opening on March 13. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

People entering the new two-storey house in Dartmouth will be greeted by leather couches with a coffee station nearby. Big windows in a meeting room overlook the Shubenacadie Canal.

The Lowthers said they wanted to create a space that was warm and inviting — somewhere people could fill out paperwork or just stop in to chat. 

"It's important to recognize the sacrifice that these men and women have made. And so we hope that having a place that's specific for them will let them know that we appreciate that sacrifice," said Debbie Lowther, who also chairs the organization.

Help with Veterans Affairs Canada paperwork

There will be a computer workstation for job or housing searches and staff will be able to help people with any Veterans Affairs Canada applications.

Eventually they'd like to have a doctor available in the centre, as well as Guitars for Vets group lessons

"We're hoping that we'll be able to do some some social things here so that veterans will come and just kind of get out of the basement," said Debbie Lowther.

"Because a lot of veterans that are struggling do isolate. So we're hoping that this will just be a nice place for them to come in and interact with their peers."

VETS Canada, which has a network of volunteers across the country, already runs support centres in Edmonton and Ottawa. They serve veterans and their families who wouldn't necessarily be people who would call the organization's 24/7 crisis line, Jim Lowther said.

People drop by and end up learning there's a program or benefit related to a service injury they weren't aware of, he said. 

"Things that could really help them and their families move forward," he said.

VETS Canada operates, in part, to federal funding, but the new centre is the result of contributions from a private family foundation and a $50,000 donation from Hockey Helps the Homeless. An official opening will be held the evening of March 13.

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About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past nine years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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