Easter Seals now helping military veterans

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- An international organization with nearly a century of serving those with disabilities is now looking to help a different group in need: United States military veterans. Easter Seals is now opening its programs to military members on the national and local level.

Didi Topping joined the U.S. Navy in 1999. It was a single enlistment career, but lasted long enough for Topping to see war.

"I served during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom," Topping said.

When Topping took off the uniform for the final time, she returned home to Illinois. There, Topping met Walter, and in 2011, the two conceived baby Augustine.

In November of 2011, things took a turn for the worst. Walter lost his job and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Suddenly, Topping was taking care of her newborn son and his father.

"I just had to keep going," Topping said.

Walter was in and out of mental health hospitals -- never quite recovering from his injury. His care and their child forced Topping to make difficult choices. She ignored her own deteriorating health, including a diagnosis of autoimmune disease.

"I canceled a lot of doctors appointments for myself because Augustine and his dad always seemed like the priority and more of an acute nature that had to be dealt with and my stuff was just kind of ongoing and had been for many years," Topping said.

Stories like Topping's led to the creation of the Dixon Center.

"This isn't about pity. It's about recognition of potential and it's not about a hand out. It's about a hand up," Retired Col. David Sutherland said.

Col. Sutherland leads the center. Not only has he commanded overseas -- he spent the last three years as a special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, focusing on warrior and family support.

Through a partnership with Easter Seals, he and the Dixon Center are on a mission to lead a nationwide network of military support.

Col. Sutherland believes so many veterans groups have popped up that their efforts are becoming redundant. Instead, he argues services should be coordinated through organizations already well established in the civilian world.

"Don't create new programs, just one: be inclusive. Use your network to be inclusive of the veterans and the families and then use your leadership to bring these groups together," Col. Sutherland said.

For the southeastern Wisconsin chapter of Easter Seals, that means adapting and expanding its respite services to veterans.

"Whether it's helping out with the kids, whether it's providing care, whether it's helping a vet from World War II to live in their own home," Col. Sutherland said.

In Topping's case, it is childcare and help around the house. For instance, with someone watching after Augustine she'll be able to make those doctors appointments and even finish unpacking from her move 10 months ago.

"A few hours a week might not seem like a lot, but when you don't get even one hour it's an enormous break and help," Topping said.

"This generation of veterans are wired to serve. They just need a little assistance during reintegration and transition and they'll thrive," Col. Sutherland said.

In January, Walter was moved back into a mental health care facility. Topping says doctors are not optimistic he will ever fully recover, but she refuses to give up on him.

"Maybe one day he'll be able to be a more active part of our family again.  That's always a hope," Topping said.