Bethesda-based Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen and her Give An Hour nonprofit had a big 2012, but her mission may only be increasing in importance.
In 2005, Van Dahlen founded Give An Hour, a network of mental health professionals who volunteer to donate their counseling services to troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Since, the group has grown into a nationwide collection of 6,500 psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists and others.
In April, Van Dahlen was named as one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.” She was invited to the White House as one of five winners of the Joining Forces Community Challenge and also attended the Clinton Global Initiative conference last summer in Chicago.
Yet even as U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has decreased, the number of veterans seeking Give An Hour’s help has grown.
“We expect as the folks come home, as the service members are cut back because of budget cuts, we have more people dumped into communities who were serving multiple tours who don’t have a focus like they did before,” Van Dahlen said. “They’re often transitioning. We expect to see the ripple effects for the next five years.”
Give An Hour has gone from giving at least 3,000 clinical hours a quarter to at least 10,000 hours in the last few quarters of 2012.
“Our country thinks, ‘OK, the wars are over, this is great,'” Van Dahlen said. “But for those of us who are in this work, we all talk about how we’ve got this window until maybe a year from now when the country is going to turn away and think everything is done.”
A California native, Van Dahlen moved to the Washington to get her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland and settled in Bethesda, where she first saw a need to help troops returning home.
“I grew up during the post-Vietnam era. I didn’t want that again. I didn’t want a whole new population of veterans on the streets,” Van Dahlen said. “I knew if I would be available to do this, there was a possibility that this would catch fire.”
Before the holidays, Give An Hour signed a formal agreement with the National Guard. Providers register with the organization, which then connects them with veterans in their area in need of help.
Last year, Give An Hour offered services to victims of Hurricane Sandy and those affected by the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Van Dahlen said she had providers offer to fly to the town on their own dime to help.
The simplicity of the process and the need for help has meant tremendous growth and visibility.
“I think the overall concept is very appealing and very easy,” Van Dahlen said. “We’re already looking at expanding into other populations. There’s kind of no end in sight.”
Video via Time 100