Friday August 17, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- State and local officials Thursday introduced a new website aimed at making it easier for veterans to connect with benefits and service programs offered in Massachusetts.

MassVetsAdvisor.org can quickly tell veterans of all stripes and ages which of the 320 benefit initiatives offered in Massachusetts they qualify for, and likewise, it can connect them with any of the 95 veteran's service programs offered in the state, according to its creators.

"[Massachusetts] has the best benefits system in the country ... but it's created so many programs that when veterans try to access that system, it's like putting a fire hose in their mouth and turning it on," Coleman Nee, the state Secretary of Veterans' Services, said to a room full of veterans at Soldier On's Pittsfield campus.

The site was developed by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute in collaboration with the state De partment of Veterans Services.

In addition to helping veterans, the goal of the website is to demonstrate the value of broadband internet connectivity to populations that are currently underserved, according to the institute, whose mission in part is to increase adoption of broadband use.

"What this site does is create relevance ... they now have a reason to go online," said Jason Whittet, the institute's deputy director.

Kyle Toto, a recent veteran of the war in Afghanistan, helped design the website. He described coming back to the U.S. and feeling lost in the jumbled system of benefits and programs.

"Everyone's out there to help us," he said. "It's a sea of goodwill, but it's confusing. ... I knew [benefits] were out there, but I didn't know where to look for them."

John F. Downing, the CEO and president of Soldier On, said MassVetsAdvisor.org would directly benefit the veterans his organization serves and others by preventing people from "falling through the service gaps."

"Our veterans in this building are going to be able to go online and pop from portal to portal and cloud to cloud to get all the information they need," he said.

The event doubled as a campaign stop for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat currently running for re-election in the new 1st Massachusetts District, which includes Berkshire County.

Downing delivered a strong endorsement of Neal, who touted his support of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The stimulus bill has provided $45.5 million in funding to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, according to the state auditor's office.

Neal said the state's new veterans' portal, made possible by that stimulus funding, will make sure struggling veterans have "the opportunity to bounce back."

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