Living Festival Values: The Jon Palks Story
Story by Pete Tillman, Public Affairs Officer
Durham VA Medical Center
The Shirley Jefferies Memorial Award (SJMA) is presented each year to an individual truly dedicated to the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival (NVCAF) and the goals of the program. It is bestowed upon someone that exemplifies the core values of the Festival and strives to help Veterans by using creative arts therapy. This year, we congratulate Jon Palks, Recreation Therapist at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center.
Palks is the 20th recipient of the SJMA since first awarded in 1994. VA staff are nominated by their peers and selected for the award by Festival leadership. It is a real honor to accept the award and Palks is in good company; all you need to do is look at the names of the other talented individuals who received the award in the past. Palks, like recipients before him, has been helping Veterans heal through the arts for years.
Palks is exceptional at connecting with Veterans. Palks knows the Veteran experience; he is an Army Veteran himself. A Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists, he is well studied, earning bachelor degrees from Luther College and Mankato State University. Additionally, Palks had done extensive graduate coursework at the University of Missouri. He takes every opportunity to help Veterans and has literally done so throughout the country while working at VA medical facilities in Columbia, Mo.; Wichita, Kan.; Chicago, Ill.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Washington, D.C.
Serving as the Supervisory Recreation Therapist at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center, his career has come full circle. He began his VA career there as a Recreation Therapy Management Trainee. Currently, Palks manages a staff of Recreation Therapists, a Music Therapist and support staff that provide clinical interventions and services to Veterans. He brings therapeutic care to both residents in the Community Living Center and inpatient units, and to those enrolled in programs within the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center, Severe Asthma Research Program, Trauma Service, Polytrauma Service, and Cardiac Rehabilitation Unit. Extending himself to accept referrals from the Tai Chi and ceramics clinics, he always looks for new ways to reach Veterans. Palks also serves as the Wellness Center Coordinator where he schedules patients, encourages employee membership, and balances the interests of all stakeholders.
His work with the National Veterans Creative Arts Program began years ago when he began entering Veterans into the annual competition in both the visual and performing arts. Palks has served as a Team Leader at the NVCAF and is a role model to other Festival staff. By educating new staff about the role of Team Leader and by providing Veterans with the highest quality of care and attention, he has earned the respect of everyone.
Volunteer Betty Star has worked with Palks for years. In fact, she specifically asks to be assigned to his group because of his fervor for the Festival and Veterans it helps. "Jon Palks is a man who does what needs to be done and because it's good for Veterans. He's in it for the Veterans and not for the glory," she said. With the SJMA, Palks can now have it all. He is humble man deserving the recognition for all he has done, and continues to do, to make a positive difference in the lives of our nation's Veterans.
"Jon is a caring therapist who has been willing to go above and beyond to serve Veterans, not only at his VA medical facility, but also for the duration of the Festival. He does great work with Veterans and always goes the extra mile," said Elizabeth Mackey, NVCAF Program Director. "Jon goes out of his way to involve Veterans from the Washington, D.C. and Maryland areas with creative arts opportunities beyond the Festival, such as organizing Veterans to work on their art at VA's Senior Management Conference in order to demonstrate to VA leaders how Veterans use the arts to overcome physical and mental health challenges," she continued. "Jon epitomizes the vision for this Festival, which is to support Veterans using creative arts as therapy so healing can occur," she said.
Recently, Palks worked in coordination with the American Legion Auxiliary, NVCAF co-sponsor, in Maryland to exhibit artwork by Veterans and arrange performances at their creative arts event. They work together for a common goal: to raise awareness and to support the NVCAF. He arranges for professional artists to judge local Veteran art competitions. Becky Dunn and Rusty Beeg, both of the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary in Maryland, are two of Palks’ biggest fans. "Thank god we have Jon," said Beeg. "He helps recognize local Veterans since not all Veterans can come to the Festival," she added, referring to the NVCAF.
Palks also takes on extra responsibility in both his VA role and that with external organizations. He is a trusted VA Equal Employment Opportunity Investigator and is involved in a number of VA initiatives, most notably for his work revising professional series classification. A true leader, he is involved in the VA Recreation Therapy National Advisory Board, American Therapeutic Recreation Association Board of Directors, Chesapeake Area Recreation Therapy Association (President), and the Mid-East Symposium on Recreation Therapy Board of Directors. A seasoned presenter, he speaks at local, regional and national recreation therapy conferences. Veterans, colleagues, and creative artists are lucky to have Palks in their corner. We salute you Jon, we salute you!