VA Maryland Health Care System
Homeless Veteran Turns Life Around with VA Support
(BALTIMORE- MD) Air Force Veteran Oliver L. Avery, III, was recently selected to attend the Veterans Affairs’ (VA) year-long Leadership Development Institute, a program designed to enhance the leadership skills of individuals with recognized potential for higher level positions. Avery is the assistant chief of the Environmental Management Service at the 120-bed Loch Raven VA Community Living & Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore, Maryland, a division of the VA Maryland Health Care System.
But for Avery, things were not always so. For 30 long, agonizing years, Avery abused alcohol to “survive life’s challenges.” In 2003, he found himself twice divorced, homeless, desperate, and ready for a change.
“I embraced recovery and haven’t looked back,” Avery said. “I give all the credit for where I am today to the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas. The staff there saved my life.”
In March 2003, Avery entered the Vocational Rehabilitation Transitional Work Experience Program and the Substance Dependence Treatment Program at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. These programs assist Veterans recovering from drug and alcohol dependence through comprehensive treatment, which may include detoxification; case management; addiction education; relapse prevention skill training; support groups; urine, drug and alcohol screens; social work services; health screenings; referrals for medical care and/or vocational rehabilitation; and psychiatric assessment and care. Levels of care include partial hospitalization; day and night-time schedules for low intensity and aftercare, and alumni groups. The goal is for Veterans to reach their highest level of vocational productivity.
Veterans are provided vocational counseling, work therapy, job readiness training, and employment search assistance. Supported Employment Services are available to Veterans with severe mental illnesses.
“The VA helped me push the restart button. While in the Voc Rehab Program, I began work as a housekeeping aid, and then became a medical supply technician,” said Avery. “The job was what I needed to get back on my feet and into the workforce, plus I enjoyed working with fellow Veterans. It was a safe environment for me to heal.”
In the VA’s Compensated Work Therapy programs, established in the 1950s, Veterans receive a certificate documenting their proficiency in hospital linen processing or general housekeeping. Veterans with the desire to develop more advanced skills receive classroom and on-the-job training in hospital safety; patient room cleaning; equipment operation; proper handling of biohazard trash; customer service standards; infection control; special procedures for transporting wheelchair and stretcher patients; techniques to clean critical care areas such as surgical suites, spinal cord units, and nursing home areas; shipping and receiving; medical supply; grounds keeping; food service; or wheelchair repair.
“The goals of the program are very progressive. They include structured vocational evaluations, learning to follow work schedules, working with others, and accepting supervision,” said Clarence Mitchell, Vocational Rehabilitation specialist. “Going back to work reduces psychiatric and physical symptoms, improves relapse prevention skills and self-esteem.”
With restored hope and an improved quality of life, Avery gradually progressed in his career. In 2004, he became a full-time medical supply technician and attained three certifications. After three years, he was promoted to a program support clerk to enhance his customer skills, and then to an assistant hospital housekeeping intern. In 2007 at age 51, Avery graduated from the Emerging VA Leadership Program and completed his bachelor’s degree in health administration.
“My job is to honor a person’s dignity and self-esteem; but at the same time, help someone with psychosocial challenges walk the line between independence and recovery,” said Mitchell. “Mr. Avery is a true success story and should give other Veterans hope that they, too, can overcome their struggles.”