PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – For the past 40 years, the Veterans Leadership Program in Pittsburgh has served thousands of military members across western Pennsylvania.
They help vets overcome their own personal battles and live the life they deserve, like Chuck Ondo.
After several unstable years, Ondo is back on his feet where he belongs – behind the barber chair.
“It feels amazing,” said Ondo. “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 to addiction.
“For about 15 years of my life, on and off, I’ve struggled with either substance use disorder or alcohol disorder,” said Ondo. “I would just binge drink to the point I would black out, wake up and do it again. I finally reached a point that I knew it was going to take my life if I didn’t get help.”
Ondo turned to the VA Veterans Recovery Center, and then the Veterans Leadership Program.
He worked with the career development team to become a barber.
“I went to VLP for assistance in getting my resume, [and] getting my license updated,” said Ondo. “The advocate I had at VLP stayed in constant contact with me. It was so great to have that support.”
“My hope is that we assist them to their own best self, to rise to the extent they’re capable of,” said Ben Stahl.
Ben Stahl served overseas in the Navy for 10 years, and now he’s serving at home as the VLP CEO.
“VLP provides housing, employment, supportive and wellness services to veterans and their families in 30 counties in [Pennsylvania],” said Stahl. “We’re serving veterans from Erie County to Greene County over to Center County.”
Stahl said they supported more than 7,200 veterans in 2021, and their newest program will focus on suicide prevention.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, about 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
“If one veteran is saved by that, we think it’s a worthwhile program,” Stahl. “We’re happy to make a significant impact in some of those numbers we’re seeing in the west [Pennsylvania].”
VLP also secures safe housing for vets and assisted 785 of them struggling with housing and rent last year.
“We have emergency transitional shelter housing,” said Stahl. “We have 25 scattered site housing units throughout Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. We also have 10 units specifically for women veterans.”
VLP will have 25 one-bedroom units in their new headquarters in Braddock. It is the former Good Shepherd Parish.
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, gave it all up for their country, and I think it’s the least we can do as a society to assist them in transitioning back to the civilian world, ” said Stahl.
Now Chuck has his own business — Valor Men’s Grooming in Ross Township.
It’s dedicated to military members with pictures of them hanging on his “heroes wall.”
“I realized there are thousands and thousands of veterans out there struggling that need that shot of hope,” said Ondo. “I bring them into my barbershop, I offer them a free haircut, and I spend 30 minutes explaining to them that their life can be changed.”
Ondo proves it’s possible as he celebrates one year sober, a new career, recently marrying his wife and a better life.
Ondo also co-founded the “veterans brigade” at his church to support local veterans and do a variety of activities!
He encourages other vets to find their purpose, too.
“You deserve it,” said Ondo. “So many veterans think they don’t deserve the help. If you allow these programs that are set up to work for you, if you submit to them and continue to work on yourself through these programs, you can recover.”
Especially with these veterans standing by your side keeping their promise to leave no hero behind.
If you’re a veteran in need, interested in volunteering or donating toiletries, you can do so on the VLP website at this link.
You can also contribute to their capital campaign as they raise millions of dollars to renovate their new headquarters.