Local Veteran Helps Comrades Fight Homelessness, Unemployment, Find Hope
by: Troops to Trades
November 10, 2016
By Lisa Finn
In a heart-tugging interview, Dan Kelly describes how he’s seen light reborn in eyes of veterans who’ve witnessed unspeakable horrors.
Dan Kelly, 39, a graduate of Southampton High School and a veteran of the United States Marines, will be honored with a proclamation Friday by Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley for his work with veterans.
But for Kelly, who is humbled by the honor, the deepest reward comes from helping veterans who need a hand — reaching out in a real way to those fighting an uphill battle against homelessness and unemployment.
Kelly, who grew up in Southampton and graduated high school in 1995, joined the Marines in 1999, where he served through 2004. During that time, Kelly served two deployments with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable. Stationed in San Diego, he’d leave on Navy ships and be away for eight months at a time, Kelly said.
After 9/11 his unit was deployed early, and “sat off of Afghanistan.” Later, in 2003, he served in southern Iraq.
“While I was in Iraq, it was quiet, thank God,” so his unit engaged in anti-oil smuggling and drug running operations.
Once back in Southampton, Kelly finished up a degree in multi-disciplinary studies with a minor in English at Stony Brook — and eventually, his path of helping his fellow veterans took on shape and meaning.
“The idea of helping people appealed to me, and the veteran connection was a natural thing,” Kelly said.
Presently, he works as the main outreach coordinator for the Services for the Underserved and the United Veterans Beacon House, not-for-profits that offer support services for veterans and their families.
The aim, Kelly said, is to provide assistance to veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.
While the organization’s main office is in Amityville, there’s a satellite office provided by the Town of Southampton in the Hampton Bays senior center.
Kelly embarked upon his mission of helping other veterans in the fall of 2014.
A typical day now can begin by spending the morning with the police in the woods, looking for homeless who may have set up makeshift tents and homes there.
Kelly also spends time at the East End Veterans Court, giving presentations to various community based organization, including the public libraries; he also works with the homeless shelter at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“My job right now is to get the word out about the program,” he said.
The “main thrust” of the program is to help veterans seek long-term housing stability; he and co-workers deal directly with landlords and real estate agents.
Mental health and substance abuse issues must also be addressed for many veterans, Kelly said.
Also available is an employment team, which works with veterans on resumes, and on conducting mock interviews, before going out and actively seeking companies interested in hiring vets, Kelly said.
A benefits coordinator is also onhand to assist veterans with applying for benefits to which they may be entitled, he said.
Coming home to Long Island after a long stint in the military can be daunting, especially if a veteran is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other physical or mental issues after their tour of duty, Kelly said.
“The fact of the matter is that Long Island is a really expensive place to live, and the housing market is super tight for anybody — never mind those just trying to get back on their feet,” Kelly said.
The work, Kelly said, is life-altering for many veterans who come home mired in despair.
“There have been a couple of really amazing turnarounds,” he said.
One man, a young Marine, had “seen some heavy combat, and was dealing with heavy physical injuries, such as shrapnel in his body. He was also dealing with a lot of PTSD, mental health issues. He’s kind of gone up and down, and has had a lot of obstacles and struggles.”
The young vet had nowhere to go, and would have been homeless, without the help of Kelly and a team of angels who came together to offer support and solutions.
When Kelly first met the young man, who was in his late 20s, at the Northport VA, “He was a shell of a person. Now he’s got the light back in his eyes. It’s an amazing thing.”
Today, the young man is sober, and a straight-A student.
Such success stories, Kelly said, are the result of different agencies and programs coming together in a collaborative effort to help.
“There are an incredible amount of really amazing people who help out veterans a lot,” Kelly said. “A lot of amazing groups that give of their time and resources. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Southampton, and Long Island in general, “is an incredibly veteran friendly environment. A lot of that has to do with the large veteran population on Long Island,” he said. “There are a ton of great organizations that are doing fantastic work. Everyone is pushing the same rock up the same hill.”
His organization, Kelly said, is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Locally, Kelly said he is grateful to have experienced a long weekend retreat at the StrongPoint Theinert Ranch in New Mexico.
The Strongpoint Theinert Ranch is a retreat for veterans and their families, to promote health and wellness; it is funded by the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund, which was was founded by the family of 1LT Joe Theinert, of Shelter Island, after he was killed in action during combat operations in Afghanistan on June 4, 2010.
The ranch was a dream realized for Theinert’s family, including his parents Chrys Kestler and James Theinert; the first retreat was held in February.
“It’s amazing,” Kelly said. “The Theinert and Kestler families are amazing and they’re a perfect example: Think about the loss they had, and how they deal with it. They help the other veterans, the guys who were there.”
At the retreat, two veterans who hadn’t seen each other in six years were reunited, Kelly said. “They last time they had seen each other, one guy was pulling the other out of a vehicle hit by an IED that was blown 30 feet in the air. A few died. They hadn’t talked about it,” he said. “Jim Theinert and Frank and Chrys Kestler are amazing Americans and I’m honored to be able to know them and try and grow the Strongpoint Theinert Ranch.”
On Friday, Kelly will be honored by Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley.
Epley described Kelly as a now civilian, “working with veterans and doing some incredible things.”
Kelly said the honor is “incredibly humbling and a little uncomfortable, because there are a lot of people that probably deserve it more than I do. I’m just grateful to be asked.”
For those that want to help veterans, more than just saying “‘thank you’, which is fantastic,” Kelly said individuals can suggest a business that wants to hire a veteran or a place to live, to rent to a veteran’s family.
In addition, he said, there are many organizations that could use financial support. “The Strongpoint Theinert Ranch, for example, is a real place, doing real things,” he said; another organization where donations can be sent is the United Veterans Beacon House, he said.
And for veterans who are struggling, or those that want to help, Kelly said they can reach out to him and the Services for the Underserved at 631-227-0777.