Bob McLaughlin, a retired Army colonel and former Fort Carson garrison commander, helps lead efforts at Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence.
Bob McLaughlin, a retired Army colonel and former Fort Carson garrison commander, helps lead efforts at Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence.

When Jay Cimino, CEO and president of Phil Long Dealerships, purchased the former KOAA facility at 530 Communication Circle in 2014, his intent was to fill an important gap in local military and veteran communities.

The goal: to provide a “one-stop center” for transition and wellness services for the area’s 84,000 military veterans and their families. Construction on what’s now called the Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence of Colorado, started in January 2015 — crews redesigned and expanded the facility to about 18,000 square feet.

The renovations cost Cimino about $2 million, according to Col. (Ret.) Bob McLaughlin, former garrison commander at Fort Carson, who is now COO of Mt. Carmel. Agencies with a mission to assist military and veterans opened offices at the center in September 2015 and on March 3, the nonprofit officially opened its doors.

During the past three months, more than 2,000 people have walked through the door for service or collaborations, and the center has additional space for more partners, McLaughlin said.

“The center is in a good location for military communities, being close to downtown and Fort Carson,” he said.

But they didn’t stop in March.

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Mt. Carmel’s grand opening is scheduled for July 29, and construction is underway for a health and wellness center across the street.

“We want to foster a healthy community, providing a center of excellence that makes a positive impact, with collaborative partnerships that support veterans and allow them to be strong and contribute to the community,” McLaughlin said.

The new health and wellness center will include fitness coaches, yoga classes and Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans for veterans.

“We’re trying to partner with organizations like the YMCA, Penrose-St. Francis and the Veterans Administration to provide more specialty care in Colorado Springs that veterans are having a hard time getting,” McLaughlin said.

Childhood connection

Cimino and his wife, Emily, grew up near Trinidad and in 2007 rebuilt Mt. Carmel, the church Cimino attended as a child. The couple worked to transform it into a health and wellness center to provide high-quality integrated health care in Las Animas County.

Recognizing the need for more health resources in Colorado Springs — specifically for military veterans and their families — Cimino connected with McLaughlin after making a donation to Fort Carson’s Resiliency Center. With the two of them on board, the plans for a new center grew, McLaughlin said.

Beacon of support

Mt. Carmel’s functions are to connect veterans to the resources they need, provide a family resource center for legal, financial and behavioral assistance, and provide spaces for an employment center, counseling center and nonprofit partners working with veterans.

“We’ve partnered with El Paso County and have a veterans service officer and Department of Human Services representative here to help veterans with benefits,” McLaughlin said. “The county also leases a space to provide a workforce center for veterans, with personnel assisting them at the center.”

Mt. Carmel houses full-time-occupancy partners, as well as those who just keep office hours and others who only deliver classes and programs. Sometimes, they’ll direct veterans to partners in the community, McLaughlin said.

About 10 agencies have offices in the building — including El Pomar Foundation, Goodwill, USO and UCCS’ Veteran and Military Student Affairs.

“Our core pillars are to build and develop partnerships, implement wellness and transition programs, inform and motivate the community, and develop the facility,” he said.

Veteran Integration Program

The center has about 80 volunteers. Thanks to a grant from The Adolph Coors Foundation, four peer navigators work at the center full-time to assist post-9/11 transitioning service members with finding employment, helping them with resumés, mock interviews and networking.

“Networking is the most crucial piece,” said Jen Medved, one of the consultants. “We have our own networking events at Red Leg Brewing Company. We bring in community partners — from Lockheed Martin and financial institutions to nonprofits and mom-and-pop businesses — that wear red nametags and veterans wear blue nametags. The goal of the night is to allow veterans the opportunity to interact with community partners and learn how to sell themselves while looking for a job.”

Peer navigators also help veterans find scholarships to go to college and provide resources to help them start their own businesses.

“What I love about this program is that we spend one-on-one time with them,” Medved said. “I think the best analogy is that they have their own personal coach through their entire transition. Even after they get a job, I talk to them every few months, because three months down the road they might say, ‘I really thought this was what I wanted to do and now I’m miserable.’ Our purpose isn’t just about finding them employment, it’s about finding them meaningful employment.”

Finding a home

McLaughlin said no one who walks through the center’s doors is turned away.

“Even if we can’t help them with an asset we have at the center, we will at least make veterans and their families feel welcome,” he said. “We want this to be their home. That’s key to the principles we operate on.”

McLaughlin said a café and Warrior Garden will be added. The garden will honor former and current military members and allow community members to purchase bricks and plaques engraved with the names of loved ones.

“It’s going to cost about $500,000, and we plan to create a capital campaign to get it done,” McLaughlin said.

As a nonprofit, funding is its biggest challenge.

“Our annual budget is about a million, and we’ve probably raised about $400,000, with about $500,000 left to raise,” McLaughlin said.

But the Mt. Carmel team is  “in it for the long haul” and wants the center to become a pillar of the community, McLaughlin said.

“I’m proud to be a part of Mt. Carmel because of the simple fact that people are partnering and bringing together resources to help veterans. This facility is a catalyst helping them to do it,” he said. “I believe in this wholeheartedly.”