Army veteran from Puerto Rico finds hope in York County network

Julian Bonilla left Puerto Rico with his mother and grandmother after Hurricane Maria shook the island. They came to York County with a few personal belongings and their two dogs. Without a hope, Julian and his family found shelter, employment, and community through York County Veterans Affairs and the YORKVETNETWORK. (Our York Media)

United States Army Specialist Julian Bonilla lost nearly everything after hurricanes ripped through his home in Puerto Rico. There was no running water, no electricity, no medication, and no food.

Displaced, he brought his mother – herself a surviving spouse of a disabled veteran – and grandmother to York County to rebuild their lives in October 2017. He needed a place for him and his family to stay. He needed a job to support his family. He needed help.

As a veteran, Julian knew there were options out there to help him. But he didn’t know where to start. That’s where the YORKVETNETWORK came in.

The grassroots group of more than 60 organizations steps into action when a veteran needs help in York County. They can find housing, employment, food, transportation, basic necessities, and much more.

“It’s situations like this when you find out how many people love you and want to help you,” Julian says.

In his search, Julian came into contact with Bill Fallon, a veterans employment representative with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. Bill and Terry Gendron, director of York County Veterans Affairs, developed the YORKVETNETWORK in 2016 in an effort to get resources to local veterans who need them.

“There were a lot of organizations out there that helped veterans, but there was no communication,” Bill says.

Julian Bonilla shakes his head when he thinks of all the things he left behind in Puerto Rico. His birth certificate, his army uniform, his family photos – they’re all gone. What he did grab was a backpack, filled with a few t-shirts, his PlayStation, and his wallet. They didn’t even bring suitcases because they wanted to be able to carry their two dogs if that was the only way they could bring them along. (Our York Media)

Help for every situation

The YORKVETNETWORK works with dozens of organizations to solve problems veterans might have. That could be anything from not having food on Thanksgiving to needing help crafting a resume for a job interview. Bill – a U.S. Air Force veteran – says the network has helped veterans transition out of jail, gotten them places to stay, and found them jobs.

“We’ve received overwhelming positive feedback from veterans,” Bill says. “They’re my brothers and sisters. I can’t put into words the passion we have for helping veterans.”

Terry – a 22-year U.S. Army veteran – says each of the organizations in the network complement each other in the services they provide. There’s no overlap and no stringent approval processes. The YORKVETNETWORK is fast and efficient.

“We are meant to be an accelerant,” Terry says. “We want to help veterans by identifying and knocking down barriers.”

Lulu sits on Julian Bonilla’s lap. She is good therapy for a family making a tough transition from a storm-torn island to a new home in York County. The dogs were one reason they struggled to find housing when they first came to the states. Not many rental properties allowed the animals. But Julian fought to keep the dogs, knowing they were a comfort not only to him but his mother and grandmother. (Our York Media)

Countless veterans helped

Within a week of contacting the YORKVETNETWORK, Julian says he and his family moved into a new apartment, and he found a job. He was provided a deposit and one month’s rent for his new apartment. And he was finally able to begin rebuilding his life.

“They’ve helped me in so many ways,” Julian says. “Stuff like this doesn’t happen all the time. It’s been amazing. We’re so grateful for all their help.”

Since the network began in December 2016, Bill says the network has helped countless veterans. Often, the results are immediate.

Many problems facing veterans can be solved quickly – anywhere between a couple of hours and a couple of days. Julian said he was surprised to have a new apartment and job within days of contacting the YORKVETNETWORK.

But, Bill says, Julian played a big part of getting he and his family back up on their feet.

“Julian was highly motivated to find a job” Bill says. “That makes it easier. We need that partnership because we can’t do everything for them.” 

Julian Bonilla struggled to find work in Puerto Rico. He tried for years to get his mother and grandmother to leave. Hurricane Maria was the push – the devastation – that finally saw their departure. Today, Julian works two jobs to afford their new apartment and help cover some of the medical expenses of his grandmother. It’s an adjustment, he says, but he’s willing to “man up.” (Our York Media)

Tip of the spear

Local organizations, charities and programs that work with the YORKVETNETWORK are the tip of the spear for helping veterans.

Organizations like Roots for Boots, Veteran’s Helping Hand, the SPC Zachary Clouser Benefit Fund and LifePath Christian Ministries serve as the boots on the ground helping veterans through hardships.

Social workers from VA Lebanon, YWCA Harrisburg, Volunteers of America and Bell Socialization Services are also key players that touch veterans in need and provide them with a connection to the YORKVETNETWORK.

Some counselors at York County Prison also belongs to the network, allowing warm handoffs of veterans leaving prison into a caring community that is able to assist in their transition.

“If you’re a veteran that has needs, and you come to York County, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll put our county up against anyone in terms of what we’re doing for veterans,” Bill says. “The organization, the people, the passion we have here to help veterans is second to none.”

Paid for by York County Department of Veterans Affairs

 Call: 717-771-9218

 Address: 28 E. Market St. York, PA 17401

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