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VHA and Y-USA partnership offers physical activity opportunities and peer-to-peer support for Veterans in California

A partnership between the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and Y-USA (the national entity that oversees YMCA facilities across the country) has been providing services to Veterans that support their health and well-being since 2015. In 2019, the partners renewed the partnership and continue to improve and expand its offerings. VHA and Y-USA employees representing different regions of the country meet monthly to discuss the partnership’s goals and direction.

Local YMCAs connect Veterans to needed resources in their communities with a focus on services and benefits in the areas of healthy lifestyle programming and community reintegration. YMCA facilities throughout the country typically offer opportunities for exercise, physical movement, and socialization.

Chris Geronimo, Veterans’ Strength and Wellness Program Coordinator at the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVA), spoke to the successes of this partnership in his region. For some Veterans, Mr. Geronimo said, the fitness classes are “a nice introduction” to physical activities. “This is an entry point for some Veterans who have been deconditioned or who haven’t been active for some time. There are some very low-impact classes, introduction to breathing exercises, mindfulness, and introduction to yoga,” Mr. Geronimo explained.

To bolster U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) programming led by SFVA recreational therapists, Y-USA has provided staffing for that program for Veterans in connection with the San Francisco Y. There, Veterans are able to take fitness classes and have one-on-one fitness consultations. This helps their mental health, social engagement, and whole health. The whole health model of treatment, Mr. Geronimo said, means that VHA and YMCA staff members work with Veterans to identify which elements of care and wellness Veterans want to focus on, not just the treatment of any one disease or condition.

The offerings of this partnership extend beyond movement and physical activity. Veterans who engage in VA programming at the San Francisco YMCA locations are finding that long-lost sense of community, Mr. Geronimo said. He explained that these Veterans then become unofficial peer supports, making sure that new Veterans are welcomed and reminded that they are not alone in this program.

One Veteran he has worked with, said Mr. Geronimo, had not been able to participate in some of his favorite activities—tennis and basketball—because he experienced symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and shoulder pain. As the Veteran engaged in recreational therapy services, he started exercising multiple days per week and attending PTSD support groups on a more consistent basis.

“His life is much more positive,” said Mr. Geronimo. “He’s physically healthier, so he can do more—he’s 70, and playing pickup basketball multiple times a week. He’s babysitting his grandkids.”

The services available through this partnership give Veterans a chance to get out of the house for more than just medical appointments, Mr. Geronimo explained. He said: “From a mental health standpoint, we allow Veterans to be within that social environment where they can work on being less anxious and more involved in their communities with other people.”

The availability of community-based resources, as well as opportunities for recreational activities, are examples of what are known as the social determinants of health (SDOH)—conditions in the environments in which Veterans live, learn, work, play, worship, and age. Support for positive SDOH are connected to their better health outcomes. VHA’s Office of Community Engagement (OCE), which manages the partnership between VHA and Y-USA, has identified the SDOH as the theme of its Community Partnership Challenge this year.

Veterans can request a referral from their primary care physician if similar programs are available in their area. OCE supports this partnership and many others throughout VHA. Many VHA offices utilize OCE’s partnership expertise to create and strengthen collaborations with nongovernmental organizations. For more information about OCE’s work, please visit

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Posted May 11, 2020