Barbara Van Dahlen, PhD, offers a striking example of the power of one. In seven years, the Bethesda, Md.-based clinical psychologist grew her idea to offer pro bono mental health services to U.S. troops into Give an Hour, a national network of 6,100 volunteers who have provided 50,000 hours of free mental health services — valued at $5 million — to veterans, service members and their families.
The organization has launched Van Dahlen into the national spotlight, and she has seized the opportunity to draw more attention to military mental health through media appearances, interviews and testifying before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. In April, those efforts won Van Dahlen a spot on Time magazine's 2012 list of the "100 Most Influential People in the World." That same month, Give an Hour was also selected as one of five "Joining Forces Community Challenge" winners by the White House's Joining Forces Initiative started by first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden, PhD, to support U.S. service members and their families.
Give an Hour's setup is simple: Anyone from the military community, including parents and siblings of service members and veterans, can find a licensed provider through Give an Hour's online clearinghouse. The providers include psychiatrists, psychologists, grief and substance abuse counselors and social workers. They offer expertise on everything from treating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury to school anxiety.
Van Dahlen and her staff of 17 prepare all volunteers on the ins and outs of military culture. "The military looks like us, but they are a unique culture with defined values, and they often speak a very different language," says Van Dahlen.
Volunteers don't always fulfill their service in a therapy room. Van Dahlen often fields calls from news shows, local groups or community agencies seeking experts who can talk about military mental health.
"It's giving mental health professionals a wonderful opportunity to share what they know and help educate the larger community about our profession," Van Dahlen says.
Sometimes she hands such speaker requests over to military or family members who have tapped Give an Hour's services and want to share their story to help others. In fact, adding a volunteer component for the military is one of Van Dahlen's favorite aspects of the organization, and one that she credits to her father, who served in World War II and taught her that giving back is a critical part of life.
Further expanding her reach, Van Dahlen is also on the advisory council of the Community Blueprint Network, a multiagency effort to strengthen services for the military in local communities. The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation presented Give an Hour with a $2 million grant to help carry out the network's efforts in two demonstration sites: Norfolk, Va., and Fayetteville, N.C. That program is creating powerful partnerships in these communities, largely due to Van Dahlen's flair for encouraging diverse groups to join forces, says Sherri Brown, the Red Cross's senior vice president of service to the armed forces, who also serves on the council.
"There are people who collaborate because it's needed and people who do it because that's what they do," says Brown. "Barbara sees the beauty and benefit in all collaborations. That's how she's wired."
Along those lines, Van Dahlen is also expanding Give an Hour through social media. This spring, the network's website added Give an Hour Connected, a forum through which volunteers can share strategies for working with the military community. The website also offers a separate forum that links people who have used Give an Hour's services.
While Give an Hour already works closely with dozens of military groups, including the USO and Blue Star Families, Van Dahlen hopes the Time publicity will help her draw more groups that can connect her volunteers with service members in need. This spring, Give an Hour reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to distribute information about its services through its centers and field referrals from its Veterans Crisis Line.
"I tend to think big," says Van Dahlen. "Sometimes situations require bold thoughts and actions — otherwise, nothing changes."