Helping Veterans Rediscover Home

The Thompson family.

The Thompson family.

Twelve grueling years in the U.S. Marine Corps left Robert Thompson with post-traumatic stress disorder, an ugly consequence of the combat zones of Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan. Having completed his service, the former staff sergeant was living out of a car shared with his wife, Kamilah, and their four children. The older two kids,  teenagers, were earning failing grades in every subject.

But that was last year. Things are different now.

Through the help of Volunteers of America, a national charity with a regional headquarters in Louisville, the Thompsons now live in a four-bedroom home in a pleasant neighborhood. With a garage, a basement and a backyard, there’s space for the teens to sprawl out and for the 6-year-old and 3-year-old to run and play.

Volunteers of America worked with a management team that rents properties to veteran families to find the home. Then they paid the security deposit and the first month’s rent and utilities.

After that, they helped the Thompsons get into a Section 8 program that comes alongside their own income to cover the ongoing costs of rent and utilities.

“It’s not just a thing of just throwing us in a place and saying, ‘Yay, you’re off the street,’” explains Kamilah. Instead, Volunteers of America’s approach is to help families up to their own feet.

But they’d scarcely moved into their new house when they totaled their car. Within two weeks though, they’d received a new vehicle.

“God has been wonderful to our family,” Kamilah says.

Robert Thompson is just one of more than 1,500 veterans served every year by Louisville-based Volunteers of America Mid-States, which covers Kentucky, Tennessee, Southern Indiana, West Virginia and Southern Ohio. The organization, which also helps thousands of non-veterans with addiction, homelessness, developmental disabilities and other challenges, is an affiliate of Alexandria, Virginia-based Volunteers of America Inc.

Of the 1,500 veterans who turn to the Louisville-based affiliate each year, about 1,300 come for case management services. That means they have periodic appointments with Volunteers of America staff who guide them through the logistics of finding employment or housing or applying for federal assistance.

The remaining 200 or so veterans are participants in an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program at Volunteers of America’s Shelby Street campus in Germantown.

Sadly, substance abuse, poverty and homelessness run rampant in the veteran community.

“They have experienced a lot of trauma, and it is very difficult to go back to work, to come back home and to completely compartmentalized that life away,” says Jennifer Hancock, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States. “So I think it’s a natural byproduct of being in an environment where you spend many years exposed to daily trauma. And it is, unfortunately, the price they pay to serve us.”

For people like Robert, who joined the military out of high school, the switch from life-and-death responsibilities to everyday responsibilities is particularly blunt.

“It is a major jump,” he asserts. “A lot of people don’t understand that. But being in the military even over four years, your world, as far as civilian life, stops, but everybody else’s keeps going. So once you get out, you’re going to have to play catch-up.”

When you’re actively serving, you rely on the military to handle things like banking and housing for you rather than figuring them out directly, Kamilah explains.

“When you get out of the military,” she says, “all that assistance stops. And it’s all on you.”

Hancock adds, “They come home with a variety of wounds that are both physical and psychological. In addition to that, they’ve all experienced a unique culture of being in the military, a way of relating with other service men and women – a language, customs and rituals that are not common in the civilian world. So it’s just a tremendous transition that individuals must go through.”

It can be tough to grasp the extent of that transition, but Volunteers of America has veterans on its staff. Those who aren’t are trained extensively.

“They customize a care plan with every single client that they work with to make sure that we’re really individualizing our approach to meet their unique needs,” Hancock says. “So it’s not a program that has a cookie-cutter approach.”

For the Thompsons, the friendliness of Volunteers of America’s representatives made all the difference. They’d previously sought help elsewhere and been told they didn’t qualify on some technical ground or another. But at Volunteers of America, all the programs and services flow out of a genuine desire to help.

As Kamilah puts it, “It’s like they’re actually trying to assist you.”

“We have a lot of success in making sure that veterans trust that we are here for them, and that we’re willing to walk with them and accompany them on their journey to successfully transition into the community,” Hancock says. “And sometimes that’s as simple as listening to them talk about how difficult it is to transition and acknowledging that for them and validating them, and them getting access to peers who can support them as well.”

Today, the Thompson children are honor roll students. One runs on the track team and another plays in the band.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to know that we serve as a support system to men and women who have sacrificed a lot to serve our country,” Hancock says. “And to be able to give to them in a way that is very solution-focused and allows them to get back on their feet is something we are very passionate about at Volunteers of America. We are very proud to serve veterans.”

For members of the community interested in learning more about the work of Volunteers of America, the organization will be hosting tours of its clinical campus, 1436 S. Shelby St., on Thursday, November 17, from 6 to 7 p.m. and on December 6 from 9 to 10 a.m. To RSVP for a tour, contact David Beach at 502.636.4660 or dbeach@voamid.org. VT

For more information about Volunteers of America Mid-States or to make a donation visit voamid.org. To volunteer, contact community engagement manager Gema Moreno at 502.636.4664 or gemam@voamid.org.