Highlighting Books@Work Programs at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Highlighting Books@Work Programs at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Image: Sam Francis, Basel Mural I, 1958, Sam Francis Foundation, California/Artist Rights Society (ARS), NY; USVAAA cites Francis as a “Notable Veteran Artist

In early 2015, Books@Work launched two prolific and ongoing community programs in collaboration with the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The first program gathers medical center staff members to encourage wellness and stronger workplace relationships. The second program focuses on residents in the VA’s Veterans’ Domiciliary, a residential rehabilitation and treatment center for veterans.

In both programs, participants meet for weekly one-hour sessions, facilitated by professors from local colleges including Case Western Reserve University, the University of Akron and Oberlin College. Professors facilitate in four-week periods, representing a wide range of backgrounds including literature, religious studies, history and sociology – thus, participants are exposed to various disciplines and styles.

Books@Work for VA Medical Center Staff

Veteran at Domiciliary

A participant in the Domiciliary program; Photo © Bob Perkoski via Freshwater Cleveland

For staff members at the VA Medical Center, Books@Work has been a regular opportunity to connect on a deeper level with colleagues and explore shared experiences in working with patient veterans. Participants sign up for the program voluntarily and find a welcome space to interact with colleagues across departments – from clinical psychologists and telephone operators to social workers and administrative assistants.

In weekly, one-hour sessions, VA Medical Center participants have read and discussed short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Strout and Willa Cather, among others. In July 2018, the most recent group launched into new territory, tackling Drew Magary’s novel The Postmortal, James McBride’s book The Color of Water and Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City.

In exit interviews, participants provide feedback that allows us to shape and improve future programming. VA Medical Center staff members have shared that Books@Work inspires self-reflection and empathy for fellow colleagues. “We’re trained not to do self-disclosure,” one participant shared. “It’s really helpful for us to see each other not as professionals and clinicians, but as individuals.” Another shared that the program “is our stress reliever, our time to come together. I have met so many people in the VA that I never knew.”

Books@Work at the Veterans’ Domiciliary

Group Shot Veterans Domiciliary

A group of veterans participating in Books@Work at the Domiciliary; Photo © Bob Perkoski via Freshwater Cleveland

Residents at the Domiciliary span age, gender and background, but all are seeking treatment as they struggle with complex challenges including homelessness, PTSD and addiction.

Weekly Books@Work programs in the Domiciliary are voluntary for all inpatient veterans, supplemented by bi-monthly “Big Read” events to provide a taste of the program and attract new participants. “We read the first story, and it captivated me,” said one participant. “I’ve been hooked ever since.”

During the residents’ mandatory morning meeting, a volunteer reads the story aloud while fellow residents follow along with printed copies. Residents then break into small groups, facilitated by local professors and Books@Work staff, to explore questions spurred by the text. Big Read events have featured stories by Gabriel García Márquez, Langston Hughes, Chinua Achebe, O. Henry and Ken Liu.

In weekly sessions, veterans have read and discussed short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, E.B. White, Katherine Anne Porter, Guy de Maupassant, James Joyce, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf and more.

Books@Work has proven to be a valuable and unique complement to the regular therapeutic programming residents receive. “Because there’s no staff people in there, they feel a lot less guarded,” said one social worker at the Domiciliary. “I’m often amazed at some of the insights they share as you’re reading the story.”

Domiciliary veterans have shared that Books@Work facilitates stronger relationships with fellow residents, builds confidence in sharing their unique stories and reinforces the communication tools they’ve honed in therapy. “It’s been a very healthy experience,” one veteran shared. “[When one professor commented in a session] that I can add value to other people, [something] went click during the course of the Books@Work experience. I found myself actively looking for ways I could really make a difference.”

Learn More About Our Work With Veterans:

    • What are veterans saying about the impact of Books@Work at the Domiciliary? Read more about the program’s impact on The Teagle Foundation’s website.

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.