When it comes to videoconferencing platforms, Todd DePastino remembers a recent experience with Zoom.
“We had three World War II veterans on, one 98 years old, one 96 and one 95,” he said. “So if they can do it, anybody can do it.”
The Mt. Lebanon resident is the founder and executive director of Veterans Breakfast Club, formed in 2008 as a means for vets throughout the region to tell their stories for posterity.
“We’re an organization that thrives on face-to-face, in-person events,” DePastino said. “All of a sudden, in March, of course, we had to cancel our events. We saw it as a real threat to our mission, and we kind of regrouped and considered: How to we deliver on our mission?”
He and his staff members – U.S. Navy veteran Lauren DelRicci, associate director, and daughter Ellie DePastino, who handles media and communications – subsequently hosted a virtual event “just to kind of take the temperature of the community and get suggestions from our veterans and others about what we should do,” Todd said.
“And what we found was nobody had any suggestions. They just wanted to tell stories. And so it was like our first storytelling session. It was wonderful,” he said. “So we realized, well, this is it. This is what we do.”
Each week, the Veterans Breakfast Club schedules three online events: VBC@Home Live at 7 p.m. Mondays and 1 p.m. Wednesdays, and a Coffee Hour at 9 a.m. Thursdays.
“The Monday night event is more informal. It’s 90 minutes of kind of free-flowing stories and questions,” DePastino said. “Wednesday afternoon is a bit more formal. We have three guests, and it’s more like a 90-minute talk show format,” with 20 minutes for each guest and time for questions from the audience.
Thursday’s session is fairly informal, as well.
“We make a few announcements, tell a few stories and just kind of check in and see how the community is doing,” he said.
The virtual format is enjoyable for DePastino.
“Part of the fun is that most of the people who join us are people who have never used any kind of teleconferencing technology before,” he said. “And they’re old enough to remember Dick Tracy and the television watch.”
The response has been favorable, and the number of participants has grown each week despite many having initial reservations.
“There’s a lot of resistance to adopting technology that’s unfamiliar. It can be intimidating. And so we try to make it as less intimidating as possible,” DePastino said.
“Usually, the gateway is Facebook. People can at least watch on Facebook Live and comment. But if they join us on Zoom or on Crowdcast,” he said, referencing the platform used for Wednesday VBC@Home Lives session, “they can come on screen and really be a part of that program.”
He credits, Ellie, 24, for much of the success.
“She’s the one who runs the live events and make sure there’s a good recording on social media,” he said. “She grew up with the Veterans Breakfast Club, so she has a real heart for veterans and a heart for the mission. She has an understanding of our clientele and wants to make it as easy as possible for everybody to stay connected.”
Usual Veterans Breakfast Club gatherings feature him going from table to table with a microphone, providing introductions for veterans and inviting them to talk about their experiences. With the virtual format, DePastino said he has had to change that experience.
“We’ve found that some veterans are more comfortable opening up remotely, rather than standing in a room full of 150 others at a breakfast,” he said.
As is the case with many organizations, the constraints caused by COVID-19 have paved the way for courses of action that can continue to be beneficial going forward.
“The first thing we said after we saw the success of this program is, ‘We should have been doing this all along,’” DePastino said. “And the second thing we said is, ‘We will keep doing this, even when things do get back to normal.’”