For about a decade, The Columbia Basin Veterans Center has been helping mid-Columbia vets with everything from utility assistance, medical services and VA benefits. Franklin PUD’s Mike Gonzalez had a chance to visit the center to find out how the center is affecting lives.
For Steve Lehto everyday directing the The Columbia Basin Veterans Center in Pasco comes with a laser-focused goal.
“Our mission is to let no veteran stand alone. We have veterans that come here and need help. We have two houses where we can help veterans who need a place to stay,” said Lehto.
For the past 10 years, the center has been in Pasco near Columbia Basin College but recently made the move to the heart of Pasco on the corner of 7TH and Ainsworth, next to Mercier Park. Lehto gave Franklin PUD’s Public Relations Director Mike Gonzalez a tour of the former detox center, which features plenty of space, on both the inside and out. Franklin PUD is proud to collaborate with the center to connect veterans with much needed services in our area.
“We knew that Lourdes had left this building about 2 years ago and we started those discussions and thankfully the county said we’d be glad to let you have this building. It’s a pretty exorbitant rent. For the next two years we owe them 24 dollars,” said Lehto with a smile.
“We’re really excited to partner with the Columbia Basin Veterans Center. It’s a place where veterans in Franklin County can come to connect with resources. They also work with Franklin County to provide veterans with funding to pay their utility bills if needed. At Franklin PUD we’re committed to helping our veterans. We also recently partnered with NVLB America, a national veterans senior placement service and their associated charity, American Patriot Service Corp as well. They both connect veterans to something called the ‘Aid and Attendance benefit that can give veterans 65 years and older much needed funding for living expenses. I learned about this benefit while I was a journalist in Phoenix and I really bought into the mission of American Patriot Service Corp. At Franklin PUD we are committed to helping veterans who have provided us with freedom” said Mike Gonzalez.
Lehto, who spent 4 years in the Navy from 1970 to 1974 including several years on George C. Marshall Submarine, says the need for veterans has been high, especially during the pandemic. He says connecting veterans to vital resources is the most important part of his job.
“We help veterans through the Benton and Franklin relief fund and that’s for food, gas, utilities and some other things that we administer. We also work with veterans who find themselves in the court system through the Mentor program at the Benton County court. In general we have people here who can maneuver through the system and find out information about your DD 214 form or other things they might want to know,” said Lehto.
Lehto is not alone in his mission. His top Assistant Matt Sammons jumped on board 3 months ago. Sammons spent 8 years in the Marines from 2004 to 2012. The infantryman spent two tours in Iraq in 2006 and 2008. Sammons says getting the job was a bit serendipitous. He met Steve when he was donating supplies to the center with the Combat Veteran Motorcycle Association about 4 months ago.
“I’ve made a ton of connections through the organization. I am part of the Combat Vet Motorcycle Association, which is a nationwide organization. So I’ve linked up with a chapter here and made some friends that work here at the Veterans Center who are veterans and have come in here. Connections among veterans is very simple to make because you have such a common ground that you start with. It doesn’t start with much more than that,” Sammons.
“When I was here Steve mentioned he needed someone to run day to day operations in the center so he could focus more on community outreach, so I emailed him that night and said let me apply I’m interested,” said Sammons.
The Sacramento California native could not be happier. Sammons moved here with his wife, who is originally from Washington state and his 2 children. He says connecting with veterans though shared experience is already making an impact.
“I think that’s what brings us up and out. When I first got out of the Marine Corp, I really struggled and that turned into me isolating myself and pushing friends away and it was not until I made the decision to get back out into my community to reach out to fellow veterans, that’s when I really started to heal from what I went through, said Sammons.
Sammons and Lehto hope that the center’s new facility will bring veterans together. During the COVID pandemic it’s been a challenge, but that’s not standing in the way of the center’s progress.
“It’s made it hard. It’s made it hard to have veterans come and be here, which is our ultimate mission…to provide a place for them to come. Just like we say in the Marine Corp, we had to adapt and overcome and offer our services in light of everything that’s going on. Because we don’t know when the end will be. So we have to adapt and continue,” said Sammons.
Lehto and Sammons say their goals for the center are lofty. Lehto’s vision is a place where veterans can come to talk in the this area being dubbed the ‘Coffee Bunker’. Lehto says veterans aren’t looking for a hand out. Many just need a helping hand up.
“I want people to know that as veterans we don’t feel entitled to anything. We served our country to serve the people we are talking to right now and we’re still doing that. But we appreciate the fact that they appreciate what we did for them,” said Lehto.
For Sammons who’s also a professional yoga instructor, envisions the center becoming a place where veterans can work on their health and wellness, both mentally and physically.
“My role here is to be Steve’s assistant with the day to day operations and help the veterans with work study and the relief and that type of thing. My vision and my excitement for being a part of this kind of thing is to teach health and wellness. I’m a certified yoga instructor and I’ve had a long journey in my own healing from things that happened on my own deployments that I’d love to share with other veterans throughout the process. ” said Sammons.
A process, with the help of these veterans, is making a major impact in the lives of veterans in the Tri-Cities. The center is always looking for volunteers. If you’re interested please visit in person or call 509-545-6558. You can email Steve or Matt at