BY BRIANA SMITH
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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Over the past 40 years, Pittsburgh’s Veterans Leadership Program has served thousands of military members in western Pennsylvania.
You help vets overcome their own personal struggles and live the life they deserve, like Chuck Ondo.
After a few unstable years, Ondo is back where he belongs – behind the barber chair.
“It feels incredible,” Ondo said. “In the last year my life has changed 180 degrees.”
Ondo served 6 years in the Marine Corps and 10 years as a Pennsylvania State Trooper.
But he said traumatic events led him into addiction.
“For about 15 years of my life, I’ve struggled on and off with either a substance use disorder or an alcohol use disorder,” Ondo said. “I would only drink to the point where I passed out, wake up and do it all over again. Eventually, I got to a point where I knew that if I didn’t get help, it would cost me my life.”
Ondo turned to the VA Veterans Recovery Center and then to the Veterans Leadership Program.
He worked with the career development team to become a hairstylist.
“I went to VLP for assistance in getting my CV. [and] to have my license updated,” Ondo said. “The lawyer I had at VLP stayed in constant contact with me. It was so great to have that support.”
“My hope is that we’ll help them find their best selves and grow as much as they can,” said Ben Stahl.
Ben Stahl served overseas in the Navy for 10 years and now serves at home as VLP CEO.
“VLP provides housing, employment, support and wellness services to veterans and their families in 30 counties [Pennsylvania]’ Steel said. “We serve veterans from Erie County to Greene County to Center County.”
Stahl said they had assisted more than 7,200 veterans in 2021 and their latest program will focus on suicide prevention.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, about 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
“If that saves a veteran, we think that’s a worthwhile program,” says Stahl. “We’re excited to be making a meaningful impact on some of these numbers that we’re seeing in the West [Pennsylvania].”
VLP also ensures safe housing for veterinarians and last year supported 785 of them who were struggling with housing and rent.
“We have temporary shelters,” Stahl said. “We have 25 on-site residential units scattered throughout Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. We also have 10 units specifically for female veterans.”
VLP will have 25 one bedroom units at its new headquarters in Braddock. It is the former parish of the Good Shepherd.
They plan to open in 2024 to empower even more veterans like Ondo.
“I think it’s a population of individuals who at some point put their name on the line and gave up everything for their country, and I think it’s the least we can do as a society to help them in the transition back to civilian life to help world. ‘ Steel said.
Now Chuck has his own business – Valor Men’s Grooming in Ross Township.
It is dedicated to military personnel, with pictures of them hanging on its “hero wall”.
“I realized there are thousands upon thousands of veterans out there who need that shot of hope,” Ondo said. “I take them to my hair salon, offer them a free haircut and spend 30 minutes explaining to them that their lives can be changed.”
Ondo proves it’s possible by celebrating a year sober, a new career, recent marriage to his wife and a better life.
Ondo also co-founded the “Veterans Brigade” at his church to support local veterans and conduct a variety of activities!
He also encourages other vets to find their calling.
“You deserve it,” Ondo said. “So many veterans think they don’t deserve the help. If you allow these programs that have been put in place to work for you, if you submit to them and continue to work on yourself through these programs, you can recover.”
Especially when these veterans stand by your side and keep their promise of leaving no hero behind.
If you are a veteran in need, would like to volunteer or donate toiletries, you can do so on the VLP website at this link: veteransleadershipprogram.org
You can also contribute to their capital campaign as they raise millions of dollars to renovate their new headquarters.
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