Jay Cimino had a vision.
The prominent Colorado entrepreneur, businessman and CEO of Phil Long Automotive Group knew there were organizations helping military veterans, but he didn’t feel the assitance was as accessible or convenient as it should be for vets and their families.
“There is nothing I can do alone,” Cimino said, “but I’ve found that if something is worth doing, people will want to help. Everything I do involves partnerships.”
One of Cimino’s most important partnerships began in 2009 when he met Bob McLaughlin.
At the time, McLaughlin was the U.S. Army Garrison Commander at Fort Carson. He was involved with the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site northeast of Trinidad and was getting some flak from area ranchers who bristled at the threat of the site’s possible expansion.
“There was a lot of controversy,” McLaughlin said, “but I had just come from fighting an insurgency in Iraq, and I knew that when you deal with disgruntled people sometimes you have to bring in good people to offset the boisterous minority that operates on rumors and unfounded information. That’s when my staff introduced me to Jay.”
Cimino chuckled, remembering the incident. “They were ready to burn him at the stake!” he said.
Fortunately, Cimino was from Trinidad and had a history of giving back. He was involved in helping homeless people through Greccio Housing and had built 11 playgrounds in his hometown; he’d also supported the Marian House, a Catholic Charities of Central Colorado soup kitchen in downtown Colorado Springs.
Partnering with Cimino, a Fort Carson “Good Neighbor,” over the Piñon Canyon project turned out to be a good move for McLaughlin.
“Thanks to Mr. Cimino, together we were able to change the narrative and achieve civil-military cooperation, and two years into our campaign they made me the Grand Marshall of their Memorial Day Parade,” he said.
Amidst the Piñon Canyon work, Cimino was busy with another project: tackling his hometown’s health care problem. “At the time, there were only two counties in the state with worse health care than Las Animas County,” Cimino said. “That burned in my heart.”
Cimino purchased his childhood church, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and converted it into a health care center. The Mt. Carmel Health, Wellness & Community Center opened in Trinidad in 2011. Cimino serves as chairman of the board, and as the center was opening its doors, he was already thinking about partnering with McLaughlin on another endeavor.
“He would ask me, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ and I didn’t know how to answer that question,” McLaughlin said. “Then I went to Afghanistan for a year. Jay and his wonderful wife, Emily, kind of looked out for my wife and five kids while I was deployed.”
After McLaughlin returned and was set to retire from military duty, Cimino asked him again: ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’
“This time,” McLaughlin said, “he gave me the answer.”
Cimino said together they were going to do something in Colorado Springs to help veterans and their families, and told McLaughlin about his vision for a one-stop shop that served the “whole soldier” — from military service through career.
In March, the Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence opened its doors. The center houses a Veteran’s Family Resource Center, Veteran’s Career and Employment Center and a Partner Space where other support organizations can provide services.
“We have four peer navigators — all veterans — that are working with troops in transition, helping with resumes and job interviews, and doing social events to bring veterans together with future employers,” McLaughlin said. “What soldiers want is the opportunity and ability to sustain themselves and their families after they leave the military.”
Cimino and McLaughlin have seen thousands of people come through the center’s doors since March, and have received plenty of kudos, including a high compliment from the Acting Under Secretary for Veterans Benefits, Danny Pummill, who participated in a roundtable discussion at the center.
“He looked around at what we’d accomplished and said, ‘We need one of these in every state,’” McLaughlin said.
Meanwhile, Cimino is enjoying the sight of his vision becoming a reality.
“Veterans and families have sacrificed so much for the basic freedoms of the nation,” he said. “If citizens feel patriotic in their hearts and they want to support veterans and their families, the Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence is a place that’s doing it and they are welcome to come on board with any support they can give us.”