It was October 2015 when Kevin Sellers, the community employment coordinator (CEC) at VA’s Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System, called and asked if I’d meet with him. He wanted to discuss how the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services could reignite our previous collaboration with VA to employ Veterans who are homeless and have service-related and other disabilities.
Within nine months of that first meeting, our collaboration blossomed into a full-fledged community mobilization effort. The result? A 100 percent increase in the employment and retention of Central Alabama’s Veterans with disabilities.
Kevin’s initiative to kick-start this collaboration and see it through to such outstanding results inspired me, and I knew it would inspire others. So I nominated him for our state’s Partnership of the Year, an award given by the Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. I’m delighted to say he won the award, and will be honored at a ceremony on Oct. 6, 2016, at a luncheon celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Kevin and his team at the Central Alabama VA embody the principles of this award, which honors those who demonstrate a strong, multifaceted commitment to employ people with disabilities.
Multiplying our capacity
A key to Kevin’s success was in first recognizing that our missions aligned and the people we served often overlapped. He saw that by working together, our two agencies could multiply our capacity to help more Veterans gain, maintain and sustain employment.
Kevin works at VA under Homeless Veteran Community Employment Services (HVCES), one of VA’s many specialized programs to serve homeless Veterans in our region and nationwide. Through HVCES, VA has deployed more than 150 other community employment coordinators to VA medical centers across the country. Like Kevin, they collaborate with employers and community providers to help Veterans exit homelessness.
Through our two agencies, Kevin and I serve Veterans of many eras, including Vietnam-era Veterans and those just back from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. A common thread among many of these Veterans’ stories involves the struggle to find employment while coping with lasting issues from their service or their recovery from homelessness. Some Veterans have multiple disabilities, and they may need several types of assistance to regain their independence.
Mobilizing our community
Kevin saw that neither he nor the Central Alabama VA could assist these Veterans alone, and so he reached out to my agency to leverage our services on Veterans’ behalf. But he didn’t stop there. Working together, we enlisted many other community organizations, nonprofits and government agencies that we knew could make a difference for Veterans—including the military, transportation, child care and family services, education and more.
Kevin also knew that pledges of cooperation can be fleeting, and he worked to formalize the partnership as the Central Alabama Veterans Employment Council. The body established a mission, discussed goals and hashed out strategies to assist Veterans with overcoming barriers and challenges. Our group meets monthly to share ideas and employment opportunities available to area Veterans.
Translating ideas into action
After just a few meetings, ideas for connecting Veterans with employment started flowing. One brainstorming session led to a VA-hosted job fair and hiring event that was attended by more than 120 Veterans and 50 employers.
Another meeting focused on mobility—specifically the difficulties Veterans with disabilities face commuting to and from jobs, if they do not have a driver’s license, vehicle or access to reliable public transportation.
From this meeting sprouted “Good Wheels for Veterans,” a bike donation drive organized by Kevin, the Central Alabama VA team and Goodwill Industries of Central Alabama. By the end of May 2016, at least 40 Veterans received donations of new and lightly used bikes to get to and from work. VA’s collaborating partner Military Outreach USA secured funding to buy helmets for a significant number of bike recipients. Kevin and his partners hope to make this an annual event and see other locations adopt the model.
Even though he’s accomplished so much, Kevin is always looking for the next opportunity to cooperate and exchange ideas. He recently addressed a national summit on employing Veterans with disabilities and is exploring how to deepen collaborations with the disability community on behalf of Veterans in Alabama and in other states.
Kevin is the ideal partner to Veterans with disabilities. We honor him for what he’s done, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.
If you’re interested in more information about helping homeless Veterans, please visit some of the links below.
Anna M. Taylor is business relations consultant with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services in Montgomery, Alabama, a position she’s held since 2011. She has a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation from Troy University and is studying for a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling.