In August of 2021, the War in Afghanistan ended after nearly 20 years. By Aug. 30, 2021, the last of the U.S. troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, leaving behind tens of thousands. Special Immigrant Visa applicants still trapped in Afghanistan, just one of several categories of U.S. and NATO allies, were estimated to number over 200,000 as of March 2023. Hundreds of American citizens and lawful permanent residents were still seeking an escape from a country that was in the hands of the Taliban.
As vulnerable Americans, lawful permanent residents, and Afghans scrambled to find a way out of the country, veterans and active-duty service members in the U.S. started “organically coalescing” in online chat rooms, says Jess McCarty, director of digital strategies at Operation Recovery.
“Everybody was trying to help each other and help their former colleagues in need,” Jess said. “And this is where Operation Recovery really was born.”
Since its birth, Operation Recovery has touched thousands of lives, including one man who said the following to a representative of the organization: “I don’t think there’s anything I can do and say that’ll match what you have done for me and my family. I’m thankful beyond words. I have heard we sometimes get angels assigned to us that help us and save us in difficult times. You’re that angel.”
Existing to build a community that supports veterans, first responders, and allies in helping them create a sustainable future, Operation Recovery leaders quickly learned that they needed a robust database in order to continue the mission of providing a path to safety. Operation Recovery leaders also discovered that Social Solutions’ case management software was the right fit as it offered a quick implementation turnaround, alleviated staff burnout, provided security, and is fully customizable for the organization’s unique needs.
Once Operation Recovery started up, volunteers began organizing; collecting and securely storing personal information from Afghans and their families as the Taliban continued to destroy physical documents that proved individuals worked with or alongside the U.S., NATO, and NGOs. Operation Recovery volunteers then needed to be able to provide that information in a format compatible with the U.S. government’s requirements.
Volunteers needed to protect their own identities as case managers, since the security situation in Afghanistan was in constant transition.
When Operation Recovery first started, volunteers worked with stranded Afghans’ printed documents, scans of IDs, and sometimes handwritten records to then reformat them so the U.S. government could make sense of that documentation. Every volunteer was collecting information in a “piecemeal way,” Jess said.
As volunteers banded together to form Operation Recovery, information was collected in spreadsheet software like Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel. In the beginning, Afghans were even trying to reach out to the organization over unsecure social media platforms.
Many of the people in need spoke and wrote in English as a second or third language, and so information was transmitted to volunteers partially in English and partially in Dari, the predominant language in Afghanistan.
“It became really clear within a couple of months that we needed a system that was much more robust than Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel,” Jess says.
Like any other nonprofit organization, Operation Recovery contends with staff burnout and the challenges that come with the stress of wondering where the next dollar is coming from. At Operation Recovery, however, Jess says there’s also the added issue of “moral injury,” a term that describes the intense psychological, emotional, and even spiritual wounding people face after being forced to witness and experience others’ unjust and immoral actions.
After the withdrawal ended, Social Solutions’ case management helped their volunteers by giving them an organized, “always-available” way to continue serving Afghan allies. “In the early days, we were passing around numerous Excel spreadsheets and working from the kitchen table at three in the morning. It took a toll on us and only intensified our frustration. Now we can work at our own pace anytime, anywhere, when we feel ready. And we can see our work making a difference in the lives of the people we’re helping. That’s really important for mental health.”
“The funding for a software system at Operation Recovery was there—it was just a matter of finding the right tool for the job,” Jon Collette, president and CEO of Operation Recovery, said. While shopping around, he spoke to other software providers, but none of them checked all of the boxes quite like Social Solutions. On top of being HIPPA-compliant, every staff member at Social Solutions—from sales team members to the tech implementation team members—shared Operation Recovery’s sense of urgency in getting its custom-tailored solution up and running to save more lives.
“When we did our rounds of different case management systems, Social Solutions was an easy sell to our board,” Jon said.
After those initial calls with Social Solutions’ sales leaders, through the technical implementation, Operation Recovery had our case management solution up and running in about two to three months.
Jess said the technical team at Social Solutions was a key component in getting Operation Recovery’s custom-built case management software site quickly spun up.
By December and January following the historic decision to pull troops from Afghanistan, Jess says “we looked up from our workstations, took stock, and felt like time had ceased to exist—those six months felt like six years, but they also felt like six hours.”
In that blur of time, Jess says Social Solutions’ case management solution helped Operation Recovery “make sense of that data set and helped everybody along the way feel like they had more self-agency and less anxiety over the process” when helping those in need.
In a matter of just those three months, 3,500 people were evacuated through Operation Recovery in coordination with the U.S. Department of State. Chartering nine flights out of Afghanistan, the organization relocated U.S. military support staff, high-risk women, children and families, and many known targets hunted by the Taliban.
For the people Operation Recovery are trying to get out of Afghanistan, they not only have very little control over their immigration case to the U.S., but many other aspects of their day-to-day lives are out of their control; as well, Jess says. Couple that with extreme weather and lack of access to consistent heat and food, stranded folks are under a lot of stress. Through Social Solutions’ case management software, those on the ground in Afghanistan are able to share new information about their situation, their immigration case or their family members with the organization at any time. Operation Recovery can then notify the appropriate U.S. government agencies that confirm the information, monitor for additional updates, and take action on cases as needed.
“Having that kind of access and connection — knowing that there’s someone on the other side of that computer screen who’s working to advocate for them is tremendous,” Jess said. “This is the kind of stuff that keeps people going—a reason to wake up in the morning.”
Suddenly living under Taliban rule after decades of relative freedom introduces another challenge for Afghan allies. In an attempt to harm a person’s or family’s ability to file or update an immigration case with the U.S. government, the Taliban routinely destroys individuals’ and families’ physical documents such as green cards, work badges, and letters of recommendation from supervisors. With case management software, people advocating for allies can digitally upload and store document scans in the platform.
“Knowing that there’s a digital safeguard there through Social Solutions’ case management software, I can’t imagine what kind of peace of mind that would give me if I were in their shoes,” Jess said. “Social Solutions’ case management gives us a way to collect, store, manage, update, and most importantly, to output lots of information and lots of really complicated information. Our case management instance is really bridging gaps between various data sets: the folks who are on the run halfway around the world; the U.S. Government, which needs things in a very orderly, neat, regimented way; and everyone in between using various systems. Social Solutions’ case management helps us oversee our part of this massive, collective effort.”
And as for the security of the volunteers working for Operation Recovery, case management software gets them closer to anonymity.
“This was an unprecedented situation for the people we served, our organization, and the U.S. Government,” Jess says. “The way events unfolded on the ground in August was out of Operation Recovery’s control, but as an organization we were determined to protect the information entrusted to us by Afghan allies and our volunteers. The flexibility of Social Solutions’ case management and their cybersecurity staff are a huge value add in that regard.”
Operation Recovery does unique work and, therefore, needs unique solutions.
“There was never a dumb question” for the implementation team in building our case management instance, Jess said.
When building Operation Recovery’s case management site, the nonprofit asked for specific and unique customizations and the implementation team worked to solve those unique requests.
Operation Recovery was pleased with the adaptability of Social Solutions’ case management solution that fulfilled the needs of its organization.
There are multiple ways that individuals and families can let staff know when there are changes to their status, whether it is a new baby, something happening to a relative who was part of the immigration application, or a location change, among other possible circumstances.
Information is then accessed by Operation Recovery case workers, who regularly migrate the information into other customized areas of the case management software. The migrated information is used to create and send reports to the U.S. Department of State.
“So, we’ve got kind of an assembly line, really,” Jess says. “We’re utilizing the system and our volunteers to leapfrog information so that we are able to track, report, and advocate on a frequent basis.”
Another way Social Solutions’ case management software’s flexibility has been key at Operation Recovery is by helping the staff communicate effectively with people in Afghanistan who oftentimes don’t speak English completely or at all.
Many of Operation Recovery’s participants speak Dari and need to be able to write to staff via the case management software in the Arabic script. Dari is a language that is read from right to left, starting in the top right part of a document. Operation Recovery was able to work with Social Solutions to ensure that documents in case management are readable in this specific way and ensure that participants can write into the software in this specific way.
“That’s really complicated from a database perspective,” Jess said. “The technical team at Social Solutions is amazing—we’re profoundly grateful that this capability exists.”
The adaptability of Social Solutions’ case management software was a selling point for Operation Recovery from the get-go.
“In the build out, the technical team at Social Solutions was really a key component of what helped us get the system spun up so quickly. Not only were we learning this case management system for the first time, but we were doing some weird stuff with it, and to the Social Solutions team’s credit, there was never a dumb question. When we had an odd idea, we asked, ‘Is this something we can do? Is this even possible?’ And they’d think about it and say, ‘Yeah, I think it is, let’s see what can do and let’s adapt.’”
Because Operation Recovery has a centralized, secure, and actively monitored system that “lives online all day, every day,” staffers and volunteers no longer feel pressured to work all day, every day.
“People can check in when they have not only the physical bandwidth when their schedule is free, but when they also have the mental and emotional bandwidth, too,” Jess said. “We’ve also got our volunteers working in small teams. So, there’s a team lift. If someone is feeling like, ‘Today is not a great day, but I need somebody to update a phone number,’ they can reach out to the group of volunteers or to the Social Solutions’ case management administrators and we’re happy to help with that lift as well.”
Our case management software gives team members across Operation Recovery the visibility and ability to move all recovery missions forward.
In addition to its Afghanistan initiatives, Operation Recovery has developed additional programs centered around veteran wellness, Ukrainian support, and other emergency responses.
In a short amount of time, Operation Recovery has done extraordinary things with technology; furthering its mission of rescuing people in precarious situations, like that of a twenty-something-year-old former law student, English teacher, and special forces translator. He’s currently in hiding in Afghanistan, waiting for his U.S. visa application to be processed.
“First and foremost, I want to stay alive,” he said. “If I can leave Afghanistan, I will be so grateful to get the chance to continue my education at a university and one day serve people through the legal system, which is one of the most important parts of a good society.”
In the meantime, Operation Recovery continues to embark on missions that touch so many lives.
“We now have hundreds of volunteers, partners, and vendors working around the clock in multiple countries, furthering our collective mission. In leaning on the knowledge and experience gleaned from the collapse of Afghanistan, we have a robust and agile network ready to act if and when the need arises,” says Jon Collette, president and CEO of Operation Recovery. “Operation Recovery continues to serve as a beacon of light for those who find themselves lost in the darkness, whether at home or abroad.”
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