In 2006, the Illinois Lottery launched the first Instant Lottery ticket in the country that designated 100 percent of its profits toward organizations that support Veterans in Illinois. Working with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA), the Illinois Lottery has raised over $21 million to fund the Veterans’ Cash program, which has awarded grants to more than 400 Veteran support organizations to date. These groups provide various essential services, including housing assistance, long-term care, disability benefits, employment services, food and clothing pantries, and treatment for post-traumatic stress to the more than half a million Veterans who live in the state of Illinois. This year’s tickets honoring our Veterans is called Winter Riches. It was released at the beginning of November to coincide with National Veterans and Military Families Month and Veterans Day on November 11. The ticket costs $2 and is available at more than 7,000 Illinois Lottery retailers statewide. With the fun and frosty snowflake design, the Winter Riches Instant Ticket makes a great Thanksgiving treat or stocking stuffer for friends, loved ones, and colleagues 18 and over. Visit the Illinois Lottery website for more information about Winter Riches and other specialty tickets. Read on to learn more about Illinois Veterans and Veterans Cash grantee Freedom Paws Service Dogs Foundation. 

Illinois is home to nearly 500,000 Veterans—the tenth-largest population of Veterans in the United States today. While they share the experience of having served their country as a diverse group comprising every gender, ethnicity, and walk of life and spanning generations from Zoomers through nonagenarians, their needs are individual and unique.

The Illinois Lottery knows this, which is why they’ve collaborated with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) to fund the Veterans’ Cash program, where medical centers and grassroots organizations specializing in Veterans service can apply for grants each year. “There are nearly 2,000 organizations helping Veterans in our state at any given time,” says IDVA director and 31-year Navy Veteran Terry Prince. “And so the Lottery grants program was established to allow IDVA the opportunity to work its strategic mission out into organizations that were hitting these segments of the population.”

Prince says that a benefit of working with such a vast network of organizations is that it allows IDVA to better serve historically overlooked and underserved Veterans, including Veterans of color, LGBTQ+ Veterans, and Veterans who are incarcerated or experiencing homelessness. It also helps them reach those who don’t wish to seek support through formal settings. 

“We often call the perfect Veteran, the one who will walk in the door and say, ‘I need help,’” Prince says. “But most Veterans aren’t like that. We’re very proud about our service; we’re very proud about not wanting to ask for help. And so the Lottery grant program is a way to get money into different programs across the state that are helping Veterans, sometimes in an indirect way where they don’t necessarily have to go to an office to get assistance. It could be something as simple as a grant program for a VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] Post, or a horse situation, where we do equine therapy in certain parts of the state.”

One Veterans’ Cash grant recipient that is bettering lives one Veteran at a time is Freedom Paws Service Dogs. The Chillicothe, Illinois organization was founded by Air Force Veteran Corey James, and his then-wife Tessa James in 2018 to train service dogs for Veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Corey had been diagnosed with PTSD and had been working with a foundation to get a service dog. When that organization closed, he used his experience to train a service dog for himself and realized he could also use those skills to help other Veterans.

“Corey thought, ‘What a great way to give back to some of my fellow people, and to be able to help give back in a way that fills a need,’” says Freedom Paws vice president Brenda Olson. To date, the organization has paired 44 trained service dogs with Veterans and first responders, working with a volunteer network of breeders, puppy raisers, and others along the way. While there’s no charge for the Veterans, it costs approximately $15,000 to house, train, and cover medical expenses for each dog from the time they are born through completing their certification, so the funds from the Lottery grant go a long way in supporting their work.

From the time they enter, puppies spend one and a half to two years in the 300-hour training program, during which they’re paired with a Veteran (Freedom Paws also works with Veterans who are training their own dogs). “We do start the training process at a very young age, between 12 and 16 weeks. And so our puppy raisers are very valuable. They take the dog home, teach it potty training and basic obedience—the house manners, if you will. And they come to training once a week to learn all of the additional skills that are needed.”

PTSD can entail a complex web of symptoms that can interfere with daily life, including hypervigilance, flashbacks of traumatic events, nightmares, anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts. While presentation and severity can vary greatly from person to person, according to Olson, the Veterans who work with Freedom Paws often experience similar challenges. “The biggest symptom is agoraphobia, the fear of them going into crowds and leaving their home. We notice that almost with every case, not all cases, but the majority. We also notice a fear of driving in bad weather or just other people coming up behind them very quickly.”

For a Veteran coping with PTSD, adopting a service dog can be a game-changer. Olson knows that firsthand: She and her husband have raised four Freedom Paws service dogs, and they’ve kept in touch with their owners over the years. “From start to finish, seeing the changes in those people’s lives—they are smiling more, they’re going out in public, they’re telling me they’re doing things that they never did before—is amazing to me. It’s therapy for them, and it’s also therapy for me, quite honestly, because it’s wonderful to be able to be part of something where we feel that we were able to contribute into somebody’s life.”

Prince says the demand for Veterans services has skyrocketed in recent years, and that providing support is all the more vital in an era where U.S. military Veterans are experiencing a higher suicide rate than the general public. “The number from the VA [Veterans Affairs] officially is about 22 [suicides] a day, some say 17, I think it’s actually higher,” Prince says. “So Veterans Services programs are putting people into houses, they’re putting food on the table, they’re connecting them with services, or more importantly, their tribe, so they’re not sitting in their apartment somewhere—they’ve got a fire team, a platoon, a squad. I think people are much less likely to die by suicide when they have people around them who really understand and care.” 

To that end, Prince encourages Veterans to engage in self-care throughout November. “I really push for Veterans to use November to take care of their health, get appointments scheduled and go see their physician,” he says. There are plenty of ways for the public to get involved with Veterans support too. “We’re doing a letter-writing campaign for our Veterans in our nursing homes called Operation Rising Spirit. Anybody can navigate to our website and fill out a card, and that will be sent to a Veteran for a little holiday cheer. We’re also pushing for an increased level of volunteerism at any of our Veterans homes.”

And in the meantime, people can purchase a Veterans specialty ticket at any Illinois Lottery retail location, and know that win or lose, they are supporting Veterans in their community. “Believe it or not, that little grant program is an engine that really helps and so people purchasing those tickets are playing a huge part in changing the life of a Veteran,” Prince says.