Veterans’ business ‘incubator’ among 2020 Newman’s Own award winners

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Jack Fanous and his team at GI Go Fund knew veterans needed an online platform to connect them to resources they need.

“We knew if it wasn’t online, it wasn’t really happening,” said Fanous, CEO of GI Go Fund. They set out to build the technology seven years ago, and hundreds of nonprofits now use their model, he said.

The technology helps support their hands-on local effort in the New York/Newark, N.J. region, where they meet a variety of needs for veterans — from employment assistance, housing and financial aid, to benefits assistance and legal support. They help veterans find employment and develop small businesses, provide transportation support, mentoring and job training.

GI Go Fund was recognized with the highest honor and a $50,000 award in this year’s Newman’s Own Awards, for its Veterans Center for Job Training and Entrepreneurship launched two years ago in Newark, N.J. That center provides job training for veterans and incubator space for veteran entrepreneurs, who can run their businesses in the space, and receive services such as legal help, website development, market materials, conference room space and business cards.

When COVID hit, GI Go Fund saw a large increase in the number of veterans seeking assistance, and expanded their services to provide more support virtually in areas such as accounting, taxes, and legal needs, Fanous said. They also expanded their online tools to help employers in New York City and New Jersey with COVID-response-related job opportunities to connect with veterans.

The $50,000 award grant will help expand the capabilities of the veterans center, Fanous said, including the virtual resources.

Tens of thousands of veterans across the country have tapped in to their online programs, which offer virtual training in several major business skills, ranging from business writing to cloud computing. Their national online platform helps veterans and their family members across the country with resume building, job training, skills assessments, mentorship, and matching to more than 1 million job postings.

Another five nonprofit organizations were recognized with Newman’s Own Awards for their work in the military community, and each received $30,000. From mentoring new military spouses to putting veterans into tiny houses and providing refurbished cars, these organizations are making a difference in the military community.

The awards honor the legacy of the late actor and Navy veteran Paul Newman, who developed his own line of salad dressings, sauces and other items, and determined that all the profits would go to charities. That includes this program honoring military charities.

Since the Newman’s Own Awards began in 1999, more than $2.1 million has been granted to 185 nonprofit programs in recognition of their innovative programs to improve the lives of those in the military community. Since its inception, the awards program has been sponsored by Newman’s Own, the Fisher House Foundation, and Military Times.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley said service members are able to do their jobs in part because of organizations like those being honored. “Because of your dedication and selflessness, America’s military members know they are supported back home, allowing us to focus on our task at home,” Milley said, during a video conference awards presentation on Veterans Day.

The presentation honored this year’s six award winners, as well as last year’s five award winners. Last year’s ceremony was postponed for a variety of reasons.

The work of these and other organizations like them help service members know their service is recognized and appreciated, Milley said. “While we can always do better, no generation of Americans has ever deployed to war and returned home with greater support than those in uniform today.”

To the nonprofit organizations, he said, “Thank you for your vision, commitment, and innovation. You’ve provided tremendous support to our service members, veterans and their families.”

Vietnam veteran Mike Donnelly with University of Cincinnati engineering students, who built a device to help him lift his scooter carrier to his car hitch. The project was sponsored by the nonprofit Quality of Life Plus. Photo courtesy of Quality of Life Plus

Fanous knows how difficult it is to get a business or other organization off the ground. When the group of five young friends started the nonprofit in 2006, he said, he was the one in the group with the most money — a couple hundred dollars. They hired a lawyer to help them file for nonprofit status, and he sent them a bill for $900.

“We scraped it together… But we almost didn’t become an organization because of that $900,” Fanous said.

Now the veterans at the center for job training and entrepreneurship have access to the services of professionals like attorneys and accountants — for free —paid for by GI Go Fund.

The veterans center’s work is supported by GI Go Fund’s online platform, which is free for veterans and family members, and offers 250 free training classes. Veterans are asked to upload their DD-214. It’s not a requirement to use the services, but if the DD-214 is not provided, then the person is not designated as a veteran, for employers seeking to hire veterans.

GI Go realized early on that service members leaving the military need information that is specific to their area when they leave the military — geographic area as well as military occupation. Someone leaving Fort Hood to move back to Newark needs information about what’s available for veterans in that area, whether it’s employers hiring veterans in the area, federal and state benefits, nonprofit resources, or veteran discounts. “This can be solved through technology,” Fanous said.

“Red tape has been part of veterans’ worlds forever, and we think technology and innovation can break through that, he said. “We want to modernize the veterans’ space.”

Fanous and his co-founders were inspired to create GI Go Fund after they lost their childhood friend Army Lt. Seth Dvorin in an improvised explosive device attack in Iraq in 2004. Fanous and Seth were seniors at Rutgers University, he said, when Seth gave up the chance to go to law school in order to join the Army.

“Every time we get recognition, we feel it’s Seth’s,” Fanous said. “We’re happy to commit our lives to doing this, and to let everybody know we’re doing this for Seth.”

This year’s Newman’s Own winners were chosen from 330 entries, and six judges evaluated the entries. Judges were Laura Hyten, wife of the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Maria McConville, wife of the chief of staff of the Army; Tammy Fisher, Lynne Pace and Suzie Schwartz, all trustees of the Fisher House Foundation; and Kelly Giordano, managing director of Newman’s Own Foundation.

Other 2020 Newman’s Own award recipients include:

*Invictus Games Foundation’s “We Are Invictus” Ambassador Programme, London, UK, sets up a framework that gives wounded warriors the opportunity to inspire, motivate and support their fellow injured service men and women through the Invictus Games Foundation’s social network, We Are Invictus. These ambassadors will help engage wounded, injured, and sick military personnel and their families in sports recovery activities around the world.

*Military Spouse Advocacy Network’s New Military Spouse Support Program, San Antonio, Texas has provided thousands of new military spouses the opportunity to get peer-to-peer mentorship from the time they become new military spouses through the time they make their first Permanent Change of Station move.

*Second Chance Cars, Inc., Concord, Mass., mobilizes low-income Massachusetts veterans through affordable car ownership, to help them get to living-wage jobs and improve their quality of life. Their coalition consists of car donors, vocational schools who affordably refurbish the cars, social service agencies who select candidates for the cars, a credit counseling agency that screens candidates, and a bank that provides veterans with a zero-percent, $900 credit-building car loan. While the cars cost $900, they’re worth on average about $3,000.

*Veterans Community Project, Kansas City, Mo., founded by a group of combat veterans, provides critical support services paired with an innovative transitional housing model — tiny houses. The organization has served thousands of at-risk and homeless veterans since 2016.

*Warrior Wellness Solutions, of Durham, N.C., provides personalized Functional Medicine health coaching, rehabilitative and adaptive exercise, mindfulness and mindset training and wellness education to wounded, ill and injured warriors, their families and caregivers.

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