by Megan Everett, Veterans Program Director
The Robert R. McCormick Foundation recently granted nearly $1.2 million to eight nonprofits supporting veteran services, reintegration and public health initiatives in Illinois. To help promote the important work of these organizations, we are sharing short vignettes that capture how these organizations are impacting local veterans.
Since September, we have had the privilege to speak with four incredible individuals on how our partner organizations such as, National Able Network, Bunker Labs, Chicago Lighthouse, and Thresholds have helped them transition back into civilian life. The stories below reveal hardships, successes, and self-reflections faced by these veterans upon leaving the military.
Deneen Gayles, National Able Network
I am a National Guard veteran. I retired in 2014 after serving in the military for nearly 30 years. I enlisted right after high school. Being in the military enabled me to get a college degree. While serving, I became a Certified Public Accountant.
Now that I am out, I am going back to school to get my MBA. These days, you really need an MBA to be considered a “good” accountant. My hope is by completing the MBA program, it will make me a more marketable candidate to future employers. I also hope it will help me to gain perspective on how to navigate the corporate culture. Since leaving the military, I have worked in a few different industries. Through each of those experiences I have had a difficult time fitting in. The military is a very team-oriented organization and that is not always the case on the civilian side.
A year ago, I came to National Able to get assistance assembling my resume and getting a tutorial on professional networking sites, like LinkedIn. LinkedIn has really been helpful for me. Since activating my account, I have been approached by numerous recruiters. I am not totally comfortable with social media—I don’t even have a Facebook account. My experience with National Able has helped me manage my professional identity, and to be more open to new opportunities that may be different than my experiences in the military.
Sandra Edwards, Bunker Labs
I am an Army Veteran, and now an entrepreneur. I own a rent-to-own tire financing company. My target market is individuals, mostly women, from low-income communities. I have been a small business owner for three years, and with The Bunker for one. Todd Connor, CEO of The Bunker, invited me to join The Bunker community a year ago. Since joining this vibrant community of veteran entrepreneurs, I have gained the confidence and knowledge that I need to be a successful, more strategic business owner. Most importantly, I am part of a community that wants to see me succeed.
Traditional business school courses teach you how to develop business plans and understand the technical side of running a business. The Bunker is different. It is an organization that helps to grow the individual, in addition to helping build a strong business model. Recently, William Blair, the global banking and investment firm, came to The Bunker to discuss different financial models. This is essential information to understand when working on a start-up. If you don’t have a goal and a path to get there, then you probably won’t. And through William Blair’s guidance, I have been able to figure out how to get there. This is a resource that I probably wouldn’t have had if not for The Bunker.
In short, I feel very blessed. I am. I used to be homeless, so there is nowhere for me to go but up.
William Bryant, Chicago Lighthouse
I served in the Marine Corps from ’82 to just close to ‘85. I was 17 years old when I enlisted. I chose the Marine Corps, probably because I was young and very petite – 120 pounds soaking wet. I wanted to participate in something that was going to challenge me, so I joined the Marine Corps.
While in the Marines, I served in Okinawa, Japan at Camp Pendleton, spent time in the Philippines, and got to see the world— I really enjoyed that. I was a heavy equipment mechanic 1342 and went to Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego and came out the south side of Chicago.
In 1985, I was medically discharged –I was losing my eye sight. It was a rough year and transition. All at once, I was told I was going to probably lose my vision, and have to leave the one thing I really loved. At 20 years old I was asking myself, ‘what am I going to do now? I’m losing my vision, and don’t have a job.’ I decided to go to refrigeration, air condition, and heat school. I wasn’t ready to accept my impending fate. I was still kind of young and naive; really headstrong. At that time, I was still able to see but my night vision was starting to go.
After that career path, I decided to take another pivot and enrolled in mortuary school. I got my license as a funeral director and embalmer, but had trouble with low-light churches and driving. Long story short, that career did not work out for me.
As time went on, my eyesight started diminishing more rapidly. As a man I thought, ‘I can’t be cool, and be blind, carrying a stick.’ In 1994, everything changed. It was the year I started coming to the Chicago Lighthouse, and I have been with them ever since—nearly 22 years. Chicago Lighthouse has helped me to accept my condition and to find employment. Through Lighthouse’s guidance and support, I recently landed a position with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and the Veterans Call Center. I have now been there for 18 months. I was born to do this work, and I love it.
Todd McCoy, Thresholds
I have known about Thresholds for quite a while now. I was a member back in 1989, and participated in their programs for three years. In 2012, I needed help again and I went to NASH to see if I qualified for disability benefits, and they referred me to Threshold’s Veterans Project. It has been a lifesaver. This program is the catalyst that gets me up and out every day. And it gives me the tools I need to deal with my issues. And it gives me hope. If it was not for the programs and the support groups they offer, I don’t even think I would be able to keep my room or apartment. The meditation group, the drama group, and the beyond survival groups are the ones I participated in the most. There’s also a movie group that helps you get the meaning of the movie. The movies are very inspiring and ones that give you hope—they are the kind that give you the message that you can change and do better.
Thresholds has help me gain the confidence I need to succeed, given me a path to reintegrate into society, helped me talk more freely about myself, and has given me effective approaches to handle my feelings. Without their support, I would be lost. And I really believe that.