Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Boots to Suits

Iraq War Veteran and Boots to Suits’ Executive Director Joshua Schiff begins pointing at his new office floor and hardly finishes a sentence before he is pointing off in another direction.

Schiff and his partners recently opened their doors for business in a space on Locust Street near downtown Vienna with a bargain on rent; just what the trio needed to begin their not-for-profit consultation firm created to assist Veterans.

Of course the bargain came with a small catch.

“The place was pretty much trashed from a recent flood and left molding for the past year,” said Shiff as he described the renovations he and his partners performed to move in.  “But it’s cheap, and cheap is what we need because we are new and we don’t have a lot of funding yet.”

Shiff and founding partners Randall Kizziar of Vienna, who is acting director and treasurer, and Jan Segatto of Vienna, who is acting director and secretary, incorporated Boots to Suits in November with a mission statement dedicated to helping Veterans gain meaningful employment by providing one-on-one counseling.

“There are services out there, but people don’t know about them,” said Schiff.

Schiff said he and his partners experienced the confusion that can accompany the transition from military to civilian life and had listened to others describe the same story.  Often there is a pile of paper work standing between a Veteran and their benefits, said Schiff, and sometimes all that is required is a little organization.

“We are compiling a book full of benefit and organizing that data so when a Veteran sits down with us we can do more than just tell them what’s out there or provide them with a phone number, we can help them see the process through,” said Schiff.

While the Boots to Suits’ founder concedes other organizations already exist to help Veterans, he says his service is unique in the type of outreach it is committed to.  Services for Veterans are on college campuses across the U.S., said Schiff, but in most cases they only provide help with for students and he wants his staff to do more.

“Boots [to] Suits will be a definite compliment to SIU and the community colleges by making the first contact with local Veterans about their education benefits and goals,” said Kristen Amaya, Southern Illinois University Coordinator of Veterans Services, in an email.  “From there, a simple phone call or email is all it takes to help the Veteran through the admission process.”

Amaya said rural southern Illinois presents challenges that many sparsely populated areas face in providing Veterans’ services.

“An office in Johnson County will be easily accessible to a countless number of Veterans in neighboring counties,” said Amaya.

The office in Vienna is just the beginning, said Schiff, who foresees Boots to Suits in every college town across America.  “Because a lot of [Veteran] benefits gravitate towards, ‘Hey, you can go to school for free.’”

Schiff also said that he meets Veterans all the time who do not realize their Illinois Veterans Grant does not expire.

As Boots to Suits looks forward to growing nationwide, the cost of getting there is expanding while at the same time funding for non-profits is shrinking.  The founders of Boots to Suits have contributed their own time and money to kick-start their grass-roots enterprise, yet going forward they will rely heavily on donations and later local, state and federal grants, which Amaya said are dwindling and seeing greater competition.

“I have no doubt that the generous residents of southern Illinois and charitable National Veterans organizations will help in their endeavor,” said Amaya.

Currently, the Boots to Suits’ volunteer staff—outside of its founders—is made up by only one person, Brian Cox of Vienna who learned of the service through Craig’s List.  Cox said he was looking for a charitable service to volunteer at to gain rank in Phi Beta Lambda, the business chapter he is a member of at Shawnee College.  Although not a Veteran himself, Cox said after speaking with Schiff he wanted to be a part of it all.

“What better way to volunteer than to try to give back to people who put their lives on the line for us,” said Cox.

Schiff’s contagious enthusiasm for helping others is the energy required to motivate flood-mud-removal muscles into action to save on rent and come up with other creative initiatives to maintain a balanced budget.

“As cheesy as it sounds, I’m doing this because I love helping people,” said Schiff who works full time at Dixon Springs Boot Camp.  “When I got into corrections, I wanted to go into boot camps to have an impact on incarcerations so I could help people.  Make an impact on somebody’s life.”

Schiff said the satisfaction of knowing they are helping people is the paycheck he and his partners collect for their efforts in starting Boots to Suits.

“Seeing our fellow Veterans obtain the benefits they are entitled to, and have earned, is a reward in itself,” said Amaya.