On May 22, the Whirlpool Corporation established the Whirlpool Veterans Association, an employee recruitment and retention initiative that is being spread throughout its network of U.S. plants and support sites, including Cleveland.
On Saturday, the initiative spread into Bradley County when WVA Cleveland Chapter members hosted a small platoon of representatives from veterans support organizations to hear updates on VA programming, both local and state. Only its second organizational session since the corporate launch of the directive, the Cleveland affiliate already boasts 21 members, many of whom met for the weekend session which was intended to develop a business strategy and organizational structure.
Although not confirmed, it is believed the Whirlpool Veterans Association could be the first of its type among major industries and other companies operating in Bradley County, according to local government and veterans leaders attending Saturday’s WVA session.
Mike Bullard, a 1 1/2-year Whirlpool Cleveland Division associate working as a CNC Lean Tech and who serves as WVA Network Lead for the local chapter, introduced the organization’s vision and mission to a collection of special guests and employee members.
The vision, he explained using an audio-visual presentation, is for “... Whirlpool Corporation [to be] recognized as a top veteran friendly employer.”
Each local affiliate’s mission will be to, “... support the recruiting, on-boarding and retention of veterans and their families into the Whirlpool workforce and community,” and “ ... to help Whirlpool optimize and utilize the benefits of a veteran workforce.”
In Cleveland, Whirlpool employs more than 2,000 workers. Some 1,500 operate at Whirlpool Cleveland Division which is the plant and Factory Distribution Center located on Benton Pike. Another 500-plus operate at Whirlpool Cleveland Customer eXperience Center, the longtime call center located on 20th Street. Whirlpool still maintains an employee presence at the old King Edward Avenue manufacturing site whose operations continue to be transitioned to the new plant.
One of WVA’s goals will be “... to recruit veterans to our [Whirlpool Cleveland] division,” Bullard explained.
He said the group will be working closely in the future with the plant’s Human Resources Department. Strategies will be laid out in future sessions on ways to embrace the hiring, and retention, of veterans.
To help kick off the WVA Cleveland Chapter’s work, the group brought in a collection of longstanding veterans advocates including Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland and Larry McDaris, director of the Bradley County Office of Veterans Affairs. Other special speakers Saturday included Mark Wilson, founder of Steps2Hope which is coordinating a home build for a Southeast Tennessee veteran seriously wounded in Afghanistan, and David Lewis, representing veterans services of the Tennessee Career Center which operates through the state Department of Labor.
Featured updates included progress on the Cleveland Veterans Park to be located on the north side of Veterans Memorial Highway (APD 40) adjacent to the Spring Creek development and the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home to be constructed on Westland Drive in south Cleveland.
“I’m real enthused about the mission of the Whirlpool Veterans Association,” Rowland told Saturday’s group. “I applaud Whirlpool.”
Cleveland’s longtime mayor, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, reflected on the message delivered by Whirlpool Corporation when it chose to hold groundbreaking ceremonies for the new 1 million square-foot plant in Cleveland on Veterans Day 2010.
“What an organization it is that is thinking about the veterans by doing this on Veterans Day,” Rowland said. He praised the company’s direction in reaching out to veterans as potential employees and to work toward their retention.
“I’ve never seen a veteran that doesn’t have that work ethic ... and one who will work for the community,” he added.
Of the Cleveland Veterans Park, Rowland told WVA members the passive park will be located near the new Hardee’s restaurant being built at Spring Creek. The park will include five benches, representing each branch of America’s military service, that will encircle a flagpole bearing the American, Tennessee and POW flags. Once the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation gives the go-ahead for filling in a neighboring detention pond, work on the park can begin, Rowland explained.
He acknowledged a $10,000 donation made possible by the Lee University Flames baseball team. These proceeds were raised from the school’s recent Military Appreciation Day. Although the date is not confirmed, Rowland said he is hoping to see the Veterans Park dedicated this year on Veterans Day (Nov. 11).
McDaris, a 2004 Maytag retiree who served the company for almost 22 years and whose roots dated back to the old Hardwick Stove, is also a 1982 retiree of the U.S. Army. He has led the work of the Veterans Affairs Office in Bradley County for the last six years.
“We help veterans any way we can,” he said of the office’s work which operates with three full-time employees and is funded by the city of Cleveland and Bradley County. “No matter what their need, we try to work with them to rectify their problems.”
A Vietnam veteran, McDaris said his office works closely with veterans on a variety of issues including three types of pensions — veterans, widows and VA compensation. Other types of aid include educational, health care, and mortgage and loan assistance.
McDaris updated the WVA group on the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home, a $30 million facility that is hoped to break ground in 2015 or 2016. The facility, which will be funded by 65 percent federal dollars and 35 percent from local and state resources, is being buoyed by a $3 million anonymous donation and $2 million each from city and county governments.
The Lewis Group, an architectural firm from Knoxville, has been selected to design the Cleveland home. The local facility, and one under construction in Clarksville and Montgomery County, will be the first of its type to be built in pods or clusters and will feature single-occupancy bedrooms. Each resident will have his own bathroom and the cluster will share a common kitchen and living area.
Tennessee currently has three other veterans homes in Humbolt, Murfreesboro and Knoxville. The Lewis Group designed the Knoxville home.
McDaris also credited the work of the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council which is a group of government leaders and veterans advocates who meet bi-monthly to oversee the work in developing the local home.
At Saturday’s gathering, it was announced Bullard will represent the Whirlpool Veterans Association on the Veterans Home Council.
Wilson, who founded Steps2Hope, said his organization — under the name of “Team Andrew” — is preparing to construct a house for Andrew Smith and his family in neighboring Apison. Smith and his wife attended Lee University.
U.S. Army Specialist Smith suffered serious wounds 10 minutes into his first patrol in Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED (Improved Exposive Device). His injuries required the amputation of one leg below the knee and the other at mid-thigh. He suffered major abdominal injuries that required 35 surgeries, Wilson explained.
Wilson said $200,000 has been raised for the home construction and will easily build it thanks to a slew of material donations and discount pricing. The one-week build will begin June 27. Home dedication and presentation of keys will take place on July 4. Wilson praised Whirlpool for donating appliances for the house.
Several WVA members, including Bullard, committed to participating in the build.
Wilson said his founding of Steps2Hope came shortly after his own son David, a member of the soccer team at Union University, was seriously injured by a tornado that hit the campus in 2008. The student athlete, who has since graduated from Union, was buried under tons of building debris. His injuries required lengthy rehabilitation.
Lewis encouraged WVA members to seek the assistance of the state department’s Career Center, or to help others who are in need of its services. The Career Center, with local sites in Athens and Chattanooga, provides job search assistance, job training opportunities, free workshops, creating resumes, Internet and telephone access, job referral and followup, assessments, one-on-one career counseling, aid in developing individual employment plans and on-the-job training.
The veterans Career Centers can be reached in Athens at 745-2028 or Chattanooga at 894-5354, or by accessing www.secareercenter.org.
Bullard said the WVA Cleveland Chapter likely will meet monthly for the rest of the year to complete its organizational and business strategies, and then settle on periodic gatherings beginning next year.
Following Saturday’s planning session at the Benton Pike plant, Rowland praised Whirlpool Corporation’s commitment to veterans and its work to trickle down the initiative to its various U.S. plants and support sites.
“I am impressed with the commitment Whirlpool has made to veterans,” he said. “I don't think it was a coincidence that the groundbreaking for the new plant was held on Veterans Day.”
He added, “By being with Whirlpool employees today [Saturday], I saw the dedication of these people is what makes this a great company. Both the volunteer and patriotic spirit was evidenced at our get-together.”