by Dr. Linda Boen A heartwarming story about a homeless veteran who found not only a job but so much more.
Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) is a vocational rehabilitation program administered by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Initiated by Public Law 108-170 the program has two fundamental goals: to rehabilitate the veteran to a level of full-time gainful employment; and to maintain a veteran’s level of functioning and keep him/her from deteriorating to a less functional level.
CWT Programs are located in over 160 VA facilities throughout the United States. Participants in CWT programs are referred by a primary-care clinical team that has assessed the veteran and determined he/she could benefit from the program. Vocational rehabilitation specialists then work with the veteran to address barriers that stand in the way of achieving full-time gainful employment in the private sector. Frequently those veterans enrolled in the CWT program have multiple challenges including psychiatric and substance abuse issues, physical limitations, are ex-offenders, and/or have family relationship issues. Often the veterans also have child support obligations that have accumulated significant arrearages.
The VA Central California Health Care System at Fresno initiated a CWT program this past year at the hospital. This is a story about a special veteran who participated in the CWT program. He found an unexpected welcome from the community and from the VA "brotherhood."
Straight From the Heart
The veteran, homeless for many years, and without a family, came to the CWT program by recommendation of a Mental Health Services staff psychiatrist. The veteran, who we will call "Charley", must remain anonymous for confidentiality purposes.
Charley had left the 9th grade, years ago, to enlist in the Vietnam War. He proudly served in the Army and left with an honorable discharge.
When the Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Dr. Linda Boen, interviewed him, he could not remember many of the lost and lonely years on the street. He spoke of sleeping in dumpsters or garbage cans amid the trash and under the refuge of cardboard in often freezing conditions or in acrid summer heat. The weather in Fresno, California can be brutal and the toil of those years was evident and shown in his fifty something face. His eyes seemed to convey the loudest story, a brokenness of sorts, with little or no expression, just a long and penetrating look of emptiness. I remember reading over his medical records and finding severe medical and emotional conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, hypotension, hepatic C, and emotional problems. I could find no employment history to develop a resume, and my hope of identifying a vocational goal was limited to his military experience as an Army Footman. I remember thinking that this was going to be a difficult placement for employment here in Fresno. Where could we start without an employment goal?
Each day in coming to work at the Fresno VACCHCS I am greeted by several kind and friendly faces. These are the volunteers. Noble and courageous men who volunteer their time and energy to "direct traffic" and persons entering the VA premises. One such man, Paul (VA volunteer), often greets me. I usually respond to him in passing by saying "got any jobs for vets?" One day, he called me aside, and said, "Yes." Later, he handed me a card with the name of a rancher and his wife who were looking for a farm hand. After arriving back at my office, the thought came to mind about Charley, my homeless veteran, and the family in need of a ranch worker. Could Charley swing a pitch fork? Could he feed and milk cows and even want to live on a ranch in the Sierra foothills?
Without much warning Charley was back in my office the next day and in need of a job. I asked him what he did for fun. I remember him saying that he "sat in a rented room these days and tried to read a book, but he couldn't really read that well." He so desperately needed purpose and a vocation and something to do with his life. He sat so lifeless, speaking only as I spoke to him with questions. I couldn't imagine how he would fare in an interview with an employer. I saw the names of the family offering the job on a card on my desk. For what seemed a rash decision, I asked Charley if he wanted to work on a ranch. Quickly, he said "yes." Eddie and Cricket (ranch owners) also quickly responded with an interview set for the following morning. Charley arrived at 7:30 a.m. and had walked several miles to the hospital after riding a bus from his boarding house. He sat in his tightly buttoned pea coat, hands in pockets, and spoke not a word. Later, he quietly shared that he wasn't quite sure if the people would like him or not.
The Interview Eddie arrived swiftly and spoke energetically with enthusiasm about his ranch in the foothills. He described organic farming, friendly farm animals with personal names, clean air, his beautiful wife, and life in the hills. He explained expectations to Charley and offered room and board at the ranch. Charley sat quietly looking straight ahead. Later, Eddie stood, and said, "let's go," indicating that he would take Charley to the ranch for a trial period. I remember seeing them leave and wondered how Charley would fare.
After the Trial Period
Arriving back at the hospital early Monday morning, a telephone message was posted from Eddie and Cricket. I remember thinking, I guess Charley didn't like the ranch and they are bringing him back. What I could not have expected happened.
A Message from the Ranch Eddie and Cricket telephoned to share that they wanted to "keep Charley and that he would work out just fine." However, they had decided to not just hire him as a ranch hand, but rather wanted him to be a part of their family. He was invited to all his share meals in their warm home. Already, the organic food had allowed Charley to shed a few pounds, but, more important, his blood sugar with the diabetes had dropped from 268 to a near normal range of 116, and he's smiling again. Cricket is retired with a Master's Degree in Social Work and has taken on the task of teaching Charley to rapidly read with phonetics. Already both he and Eddie are in pursuit of fishing licenses (after the chores of course, shares Cricket); as they live near many lakes filled with trout, brim, and salmon in the Sierras. Eddie and Cricket asked Charley what he had always wanted to do and he shared that his dream was to see Europe. They have such a trip planned to Italy this coming year, and invited Charley to start a saving's fund, which they will match dollar for dollar, and they plan to take him along as part of their family.
Cricket set up a small Christmas tree, ablaze with lights in Charley's trailer, as the ranch that they live on is called Bright Star Ranch. She says the tree makes his eyes sparkle with delight. She asked him what he wanted most for Christmas and he quickly replied "a tri tip roast." Looks like Charley not only found his way home to a warm fire, a ranch with "pet" cows and dogs, a dream job, (which he's working into as he physically recovers,) and a lot of love from a very special family. But, in closing, this is a much broader story. It was the care and concern of "The VA Family of Brotherhood and Sisterhood," veterans helping veterans, that brought this very special veteran "home."
Dr. Boen is a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for the California Central Health Care System at Fresno, California. Prior to this, she served veterans in NW Arkansas as Vocational Rehabilitation's Chapter 31 Regional Counseling Psychologist. She has also been a Professor of Counselor Education at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas and served disabled persons throughout her career.