Antoinette Balta came into her regular Starbucks to pick up coffee the store was donating. She ultimately walked away with much more.
Balta is a lecturer at the University of California Irvine School of Law and a captain in the California Military Reserve, where she’s a judge advocate general. She also cofounded the Veterans Legal Institute, which provides pro bono legal assistance to veterans related to housing, education, employment, disability claims and healthcare issues.
That role brought her to the Starbucks in downtown Santa Ana, California. As she picked up coffee donated for an upcoming veterans’ event, Balta struck up a conversation with store manager Eric Olson. Balta mentioned a program she’d heard about at a Starbucks in Williamsburg, Virginia, called Military Mondays. The initiative creates a comfortable, accessible setting for the veteran community to receive free legal advice and counsel.
Olson pondered what she’d told him and responded by pointing to a table in the coffeehouse and suggesting that a West Coast branch of Military Mondays could take place right there.
“Are you available to do it?” Olson asked. The answer was yes.
Veterans Legal Institute and Starbucks Armed Forces Network convened the first in a monthly series of two-hour Military Mondays at the Starbucks on 301 W. 4th St. in Santa Ana last week (November 16).
Engaging with the SoCal Military Community
Momentum for Military Mondays is building in other ways too. Lacey Price, a North Orange County district manager and daughter of a 40-year service veteran, has been leading Starbucks initiative to engage with the sizable military community in Orange County. Already aware of the Military Monday program in Virginia, she organized a meeting with Olson and Balta and began the process of identifying the right Orange Country location for something similar. It turned out that the store in Santa Ana met all the requirements, foremost being a welcoming atmosphere.
Balta noted that the nearby Santa Ana Civic Center is a gathering point for homeless veterans, a substantial population in Southern California.
“Due to our proximity to Camp Pendleton, which is a major Marine Corps base, we get a lot of Marines who are separating from the military or are terming out of their enlistment. A lot of them decide to stay in California,” Balta said. “You go to them. You can’t force them to come to you because there are so many issues and barriers preventing them from accessing services, let alone allowing them to be eligible for these services.”
‘Every appointment is a different story’
Military Mondays originated with Unique Turner, a Starbucks district manager in southeastern Virginia, and Patricia Roberts, a clinical professor of law at William & Mary who directs their Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic. The program began in June with professors and students from the Puller Clinic who met with veterans at the McLaws Circle Starbucks® store in Williamsburg, Virginia. Participants say the Starbucks’ program is making a difference in addressing the challenges veterans and their families face.
Roberts has been part of an effort to help assure a terminally ill recipient of the Bronze Star that his claims would be preserved for his wife after his passing. Other legal professionals helped a Vietnam veteran with legal and medical research to prove his rare disease was connected to Agent Orange. Roberts suggested Balta and her team in Santa Ana be prepared for an emotional journey.
“Every appointment is a different story,” she said. “One of the things that I think is most important about what we do is to listen and show our concern. We provide support and guidance, and we show that we care. It’s more than coffee and it’s more than claims. It’s also about engaging the veteran in his or her story and being appreciative.”
The Military Mondays concept has attracted attention around the nation, according to Rob Porcarelli, Starbucks vice president and assistant general counsel. Individuals and groups in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have reached out to Starbucks to get involved.
“It’s pretty exciting to be able to help veterans and their families in this way,” Porcarelli said. “It’s remarkable how William & Mary has gotten the word out to the legal community.”
Pictured above from left to right: Eric Olson, Starbucks store manager; Lacey Price, Starbucks district manager; Antoinette Balta, cofounder Veterans Legal Institute.