TLS Veterans in McHenry just might be the best kept secret among organizations reaching out to military families. Its leaders want to let the secret out.

In fact, ask Executive Director Laura Franz what’s the biggest thing that people need to know about the agency and she sums it up quickly: “That we’re here.”

“Our agency has been around for 20 years,” she adds, “doing such good work, but most people do not even know about us.

The program was started in 1996 by a Vietnam veteran, Alan Belcher of Woodstock. After seeing so much suffering among his fellow veterans, Belcher returned to school to become a licensed counselor and began leading support groups for veterans.

He filled a void almost immediately, since there are more than 16,000 veterans in McHenry County alone. But the organization also draws veterans from Lake and parts of Cook, Kane and Kenosha counties.

Its original focus was on targeting veterans who are homeless or facing imminent homelessness. But its current staff of 15 full-time and 12 part-time professionals also serves veterans and families who need food, housing assistance, employment assistance, and support for mental health and substance abuse recovery.

“Veterans and their families call and stop in with many kinds of questions and needs, and we work with a number of other organizations when there are needs we can’t meet,” Franz says. “We are known for our quick responses to veterans in crisis.”

The agency operates on an annual budget of about $1.2 million, with funding for more than 90 percent of services coming from grants from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Since coming on board a year ago, Franz has made it a priority to increase the agency’s local fundraising activities and visibility. An upcoming concert featuring local bands in all different types of genres is an attempt to draw a different audience to their mission, she says. Earlier this year, the agency held a wine tasting in its first attempt to broaden its base.

“Everybody knows a veteran,” Franz says, “and almost everyone knows a veteran who is hurting.”

The agency offers counseling support to veterans and their families — individual sessions, group support, couples and family counseling. Belcher himself continues to lead a support group once a week.

Programs include the New Horizons Transitional Living Program in Hebron, which serves 20 homeless veterans at a time and generally has a waiting list.

The organization also operates a drop-in resource center in McHenry, which includes a food pantry, certified veteran peer support specialists and counseling staff. The center draws an average of 150 veterans and their families per month.

An employment program operates out of the three local veterans’ hospitals as well as New Horizons and the McHenry drop-in site. This year alone, the agency has placed 107 homeless veterans into employment and assisted another 138 with training and job readiness.

Finally, the VA-funded Supported Services for Veteran Families helps low-income, homeless veterans and their families get back into housing. Over the last year, TLS was able to help 80 families find housing and another 65 were helped through case management.

Still, the need continues. Franz describes an incident that happened recently, that is fairly common at their center.

“A veteran with four children showed up at our door and said they had no food,” Franz said. “They were living in a car. We were able to help them immediately and connect them with our resources.”

Franz added that the often quoted statistic of 22 veterans committing suicide every day drives their staff.

“In this case, we saved one,” Franz said. “That day, there were 21.