DACC welcomes veterans to new space

Student veterans Russell Hillman, far left, and Rayford Sims, far right, receive a treat from Danville High School seniors DJ Barnette and Peyton Hile who helped raise money to supply treats and reference materials for the new Veterans' Center in Cannon Hall at Danville Area Community College.

DANVILLE – A cozy spot has been created on Danville Area Community College’s campus for students who are veterans that have returned to school.

On Monday morning, the Veterans’ Freedom Center welcomed dignitaries and community members eager to see the new space on the second floor of Cannon Hall.

The lounge area — which is furnished with recliners draped with DACC blankets, a few computers and a wall-mounted TV — is an extension of DACC’s Veterans Multipurpose Center.

The center will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for student/staff veterans only and offers a quiet area for studying, relaxing and fellowship among veterans. The idea for the area was hatched by Coordinator of Career & Veteran Services Nick Catlett and Assistant Vice President of Student Services Brian Hensgen. The center will be managed by DACC’s Career Services and the American Job Center.

Hensgen told the student veterans during Monday’s open house, “This is a space for whenever you want to come up here.”

Two colorful murals — one depicting the branches of the armed forces surrounding a fierce-looking DACC jaguar wearing a helmet, and the other mural layered in blue with the words “By Air, By Land, By Sea” — liven up the walls.

Brad Weaver, DACC supervisor for campus services and the graphics department, admired the branches of the armed forces mural.

“I like the fact that it has different colors and catches your eye,” he said. “It’s great (the veterans) have their own space. They can relax and do the things they need to get done.”

Hensgen encouraged the student veterans to use a large map that is on one of the walls to designate the places they’ve been stationed while serving in the military.

“We wish all of you good luck in school, and we hope this will help you get to the finish line,” he said, adding, “Thank you for your service to our country.”

Catlett said the new space will allow “veterans to hang out with each other and share stories.” An estimated 75 veterans are enrolled at DACC.

“It’s a small token of our appreciation for what they have done for us and our country,” he said.

State Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, praised the college for creating the Veterans’ Freedom Center.

“DACC has been so supportive of our veterans,” he said. “When veterans return to the classroom, they’re a non-traditional student. They’re older and have more experience than students right out of high school.”

Sen. Bennett said the new space will allow DACC’s student veterans to have “a smooth transition back into the classroom.”

One student veteran, Westville native Josh Giuliani, said he was looking forward to using the new space.

“I’ve been going to DACC for six years,” he said. “I was interrupted by a tour of duty in Afghanistan and came back with a different career plan.”

Giuliani said since he’s older than the typical DACC student, he felt he and other veterans weren’t “automatically accepted” by other students.

“It’s nice to be able to meet up with other people with like interests,” he said of the new space.

Another student veteran, Russell Hillman, said returning to school is the best decision he’s ever made.

“I love culinary arts. I love to cook and bake,” he said, joking that he’s even put on a few pounds since enrolling in the popular DACC program.

Danville High School students involved in JROTC and Model UN also plan to contribute to the Veterans’ Freedom Center on a monthly basis.

DHS students DJ Barnette and Peyton Hile brought treats and reference materials on Monday to stock the lounge.

The DHS students raised $2,000 during a Salute to Veterans event in early September during which veterans were invited to a free meal and free admission to a DHS football game.

“We had a silent auction with the community donating items, and that’s how we raised the money to do all that we’ve done,” DJ said. “All of us are connected to the military one way or another.”

“We bought some general reference materials, such as study guides for anatomy and history, and writing manuals,” said DHS Math teacher Lori Woods, who is the Model UN adviser. “We also sent some dictionaries out to the prison for incarcerated veterans.”

Peyton, who is a cadet commander in DHS’ JROTC, said, “Next month, we’ll bring in hot chocolate and cookies to the center.”

Giuliani, who spoke on behalf of himself and the other student veterans, told the crowd of dignitaries and community members, “Aside from politics and budgets, having a place that feels like home goes a long way for our academic success.”

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