Anyone who’s been in the U.S. military understands the importance of 8 a.m. – 0800 – when many bases and ships raise the American flag and play “The Star Spangled Banner.” The music, the flag-raising, and the digits on the clock all combine to symbolize the beginning of a new day, a new beginning.

It’s no coincidence that the time is reflected in the name of zero8hundred, a new San Diego-based program designed to help the thousands of local service members who transition to the world outside the military each year. People of all ranks like Dr. Amy Bryer, commander, a dentist who’s been serving for 11 years.

The zero8hundred program, which launched this year, has made a huge difference to Bryer as she prepares to enter civilian life.

“The most important thing for me has been the support, the backers, someone in my corner with a personal touch, someone who truly cares,” she said. “There’s someone who is there for me when I need it and not just during working hours.”

Meeting A Need in San Diego

Members of zero8hundred.

“About 15,000 to 20,000 service members transition in the county each year, and a third of them stay here,” said Sean Mahoney, a retired Coast Guard captain who serves as zero8hundred’s executive director. “They have challenges across areas like health and other basic needs, employment and education, and personal connections and networking. They want to be able to connect to resources to help them overcome challenges.”

Historically, members of San Diego’s military had to find assistance with the transition to civilian life on their own. Meanwhile, dozens of local nonprofit agencies struggled to get their message out to the service members they’re eager to help.

In addition to an Internet portal that links to the websites of local services, zero8hundred is piloting a partnership with Navy Region Southwest and Coast Guard Sector San Diego that assigns “peer navigators” to personally help service members enrolled in mandatory transition classes. This is a key component to successfully reaching and helping Sailors that zero8hundred hopes to expand to other branches of the military.

“All of the navigators have military connections, and most have been service members themselves,” Mahoney said.

More than 250 clients have opted into the program since January, with an estimated 40 to 50 coming in each month to access personal assistance from a peer navigator. Many also choose to connect to resources through the web portal, which has hosted over 7000 sessions in the same time period.

Formed from Unprecedented Collaboration

It all began in 2011 with interest among several members of San Diego Grantmakers, an association of philanthropic organizations and individuals.

“They wanted to explore how they might better coordinate and leverage their resources and identify an area of specific need within this population to address,” Nancy Jamison, president and CEO of San Diego Grantmakers, said.

The funders formalized their collaboration in 2012. They focused on developing a comprehensive plan that would better coordinate community resources for transitioning post-9/11 military personnel and connect those resources to service members and their families as early in the transition process as possible.

Financial support was also vital. With lead funding from Blue Shield of California Foundation, as well as from Rancho Santa Fe Foundation and WebMD Health Foundation, San Diego Grantmakers convened additional funders, military representatives, elected officials, employers, advocates, and nonprofit service providers in what became known as the Military Transition Support Project.

Crucial to this collaboration was the logistical, facilitation, and strategic planning support from San Diego Grantmakers to maintain focus and momentum among so many different stakeholders.

Joe Buerhle, the coordinator of the San Diego Military Family Collaborative, says these efforts made a huge difference.

“They really stepped up to convene the conversation and get all of the key folks to the table,” he said. “They took a lead in setting things up and bringing people together.”

The Military Transition Support Project Community Plan was finally unveiled during a public convening attended by more than 100 people in early 2014. About a year later, zero8hundred debuted after intensive fundraising and advocacy.

Worth the Effort

For military members like Kylee Valdez, the time and effort put in by so many is valuable. Having served since high school, she’s helped aircraft launch and land on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier while serving as an ABH third-class petty officer in the Navy, but hadn’t before dealt with challenges like finding affordable childcare. Now, she’s 22 years old and preparing to start nursing school.

“Reality really hit me as I was transitioning out,” she said.

If she needs help, Valdez says, her counselor gets back to her within 24 hours with resources to pursue.

“Zero8hundred has been an amazing resource for me,” Valdez said. “My counselor is awesome! She checks in on me every few weeks and asks how I’m doing and what I’m most concerned about at that time. We talk about everything from transitioning, childcare, school, work, unemployment, health insurance, anything, you name it.”

Valdez says she hopes zero8hundred can secure additional public and private support so it can serve more transitioning service members.

“Some service members are young and single with no children, and they don’t think about all they have to do as a civilian that they didn’t as a military personnel,” she said. “It’s scary, and most people don’t prepare. It’s all about having a plan.”

The zero8hundred program, Valdez says, can make all the difference.

“It’s an amazing program, and I’m so glad that I chose to be a part of it,” she said.

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