Cynthia Besaw left the Air Force after seven years of service with a broken back, shattered foot and two young children. When she first moved back to Whidbey Island and enrolled at Skagit Valley College, she was completely unaware of the services she now helps provide to veterans.
“When I separated, I didn’t know of any of these resources or any help,” she said. “And I was a single mom of two, working three jobs and going to college full time.”
Four years later, Besaw is the veterans services coordinator within the Island County human services department. Her work includes helping people fill out forms, assisting with Department of Veterans Affairs claims and providing emergency financial assistance to indigent veterans and their dependents.
The services, which are funded by the county veterans assistance fund, can include one-time relief to prevent people from entering homelessness or having their utilities shut off. She said the office also provides partners or children with money to help pay for the burial of a veteran.
Besaw is relatively new to the position, but she gained experience and a desire to enter the field during a work-study program at SVC. While originally pursuing a nursing career, she worked to help other veteran students get connected to resources to help them transition and enroll at the school. She said enrolling in college is many people’s first step after leaving the service.
“It’s overwhelming to most people,” she said.
After the work-study program, she changed her degree to psychology with the intent of pursuing a career in helping veterans. Lynda Richards, assistant human services director, said Besaw’s experience working with people who have multiple needs made her particularly qualified for the position. Beyond financial assistance, she tries to connect people to other agencies that can assist with finding housing, transportation, medical care or a combination of services depending on the person.
“This month alone, I’ve met with over 40 different people for different needs that weren’t financial,” Besaw said.
The high demand for case management tasks spurred a change in the 2018 county budget to make the veterans services coordinator position full-time. One of Besaw’s goals is to establish consistent hours at each office across the county. She is also trying to have more of a presence on the South End by having an office at the Whidbey Veterans Resource Center, once it expands its hours.
Her overarching mission is to increase awareness about the resources available and learn as much as she can about the needs in the county. She said when she saw the job opening, it was exactly the kind of work she wanted to do.
“Just being able to help people in general is gratifying,” she said. “I remember being in that same position as the people that come to see me, and it’s really humbling to come in. But just being able to help in any way I can, even if it’s filling out a form or reviewing something for them because they’re overwhelmed. That’s huge.”
Veterans eligible for assistance must be residents of Island County, have an income 150 percent of poverty level, have served under honorable or general under honorable conditions, and be able to show other proof of identity and documentation of eligibility. More information can be found on the Veterans Assistance page at www.islandcountywa.gov/humanservices