Nicole Hart: Providing Holistic Help at ARVets

 

Help for the healing.

Photography by Brandon Markin

 

While clinical research on PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, focuses on select gene processes and high-tech brain imaging, veterans throughout Central Arkansas are finding holistic solutions at ARVets, a “one-stop shop” for mental health resources for Arkansas veterans and their families. ARVets’ successful model is measured in the sheer number of lives changed.

Nicole Hart, the organization’s CEO, is marking the fourth year of ARVets’ nonprofit mission to connect veterans with much-needed resources. A veteran of the Iraq War, Hart dealt with the death of her commanding officer and several fellow soldiers, all close friends, during her deployment. She has overcome survivor’s guilt, and she is living proof that PTSD is survivable.

“For military service members, certain stressors take you back to a state of mind,” Hart explained. “If you are experiencing something during which you need to feel protected, it will take you back to that time in your mind when you needed to be protected.”

Hart’s experience with PTSD mirrors that of other sufferers in its totality of emotional and physical reactions: the senses are overwhelmed by anxiety, fear and pain. “You can smell and see and feel it,” Hart said. “It feels very present and real.”

Originally from Oakland, Calif., Hart recalled her sometimes-difficult childhood as one of the first things in life she overcame. She persevered, thanks to a deep and abiding faith in her home church and the support of a loving father. A natural leader, Hart focused on her education, attended Harding University in Searcy, Ark., where she was active in student organizations and founded the college’s first chapter of College Democrats. When her father died suddenly, Hart was thrust into adulthood. She joined the Arkansas National Guard to help care for her younger siblings and to ensure completion of her political science degree.

“In one recent therapy session,” Hart said, “I had a revelation that my father had played such a protective role in my life that he was at the core of how I dealt with challenges. Now, I turn to God as my protector.”

Hart completed her military training just as the United States entered the Iraq War; her deployment came at the height of the conflict. She returned to Harding and finished her schooling, and after graduation, joined the staff of former Gov. Mike Beebe as veterans affairs liaison, where she worked for seven years. Hart said her PTSD did not manifest until after her return from Iraq in 2005; she immediately began seeking answers. When a state task force studying veterans’ needs found crucial gaps in programs and services, Hart took on the directorship of ARVets, an organization created to bridge gaps in veterans’ care and connect veterans and their families with programs and resources.

In early 2015, Hart worked closely with the Attorney General’s office and the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs (ADVA), and ARVets became the first ADVA-certified nonprofit organization providing services to veterans. ARVets focuses on four main target areas: community and family; homelessness; job training and career development; and behavioral and physical health.

“Our goal is to create a sustainable support system for veterans long-term, so that our clients know where to go and whom to go through,” Hart said. “For 2016, we are focusing on addressing unemployment, increasing behavioral health programs and getting folks connected to health services through the VA.”

ARVets has completed hundreds of upgrades to the discharge status of veterans, enabling access to VA health benefits. Because suicide rates for National Guard members were increasing — even for those who did not deploy — ARVets added programs to address former guard members’ access to job training, creating partnerships to help former members gain and sustain employment. A longstanding partnership with Arkansas Department of Workforce Services helps lead clients to ARVets, where they can find out about other nonprofits; for example, the Arkansas Freedom Fund, which confronts PTSD through a novel mix of hiking, bicycling, fishing and other outdoor programs ideal for the Natural State. ARVets’ partnerships with SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health) and Arkansas Behavioral Health Collaborative also bring veterans to care providers. The ARVets website arvets.org is packed with information, easy to navigate and allows prospective partners to connect with the staff.

Hart draws from her own experience to urge everyone to engage in their healthcare by asking questions and researching treatment options. As a female veteran, Hart is one of a distinct minority: only 11.6 percent of returning veterans are women, and more research is needed to understand how standard treatment affects female physiology. When Hart learned of a nutritional program pioneered in her home state of California, she was able to adapt the program for her needs and discontinue certain medications. “I do a lot of meditation and mindfulness, although sometimes I have really hard moments,” she said.

One important reason Hart worked to discontinue certain medications: She and husband Patrick learned last year they were expecting their first son this year. Hart said with a radiant smile, “One of the best blessings God gave me was my husband, who has been with me from the beginning, even before my deployment. ARVets offers services for the entire family because we know the family plays an integral role in the care of the veteran.”

The Harts met in church and have two daughters, both of whom look forward to spoiling their baby brother, Patrick Junior.

Hart listed milestones of ARVets’ development as a resource agency: dedicated volunteers; caseworkers who provide one-on-one help; ongoing group therapy sessions for PTSD; ARVets’ computer workstations for use by clients to apply for jobs online, conduct research and update resumes; and the flexibility of ARVets as a rapid response organization that unravels bureaucratic tape.

“From a nonprofit perspective, it’s been a blessing to be able to adjust to veterans’ needs,” Hart explained. “We’re able to shift and move to meet them where they are.”

One such opportunity was an outreach endeavor, “Stand Up for Veterans,” during which the staff of ARVets meet an entire family — a couple with two children — where they were: homeless and living under a bridge. “We were able to get them shelter and help the father get a job. We helped them get a place to live, and then helped him get a better job,” Hart said. Another notable success occurred when a veteran returning from active duty turned to ARVets and ended up working at NASA. “The freedom of a small nonprofit like ARVets lies in that we can sustain them,” Hart said. “There’s not a time limit.”

As we ended our interview, a child’s handmade card caught my eye. The brief note, taped to a desk, conveyed much about ARVets’ mission:

Dear Soldier: Thank you for serving our country. It must have been hard leaving your family to fight for people you don’t know, but you persevered and I thank you.

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