In 2010, Captain Susan Feighery was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that ended her 17-year military career and started a two-year battle for her life.
After many rounds of radiation, surgeries and chemotherapy, Feighery emerged victorious, but forever changed, and began her search for what she calls “the new normal” for her life.
“I typed ‘unemployed veteran needs help’ into Google,” said Feighery.
She discovered the now expired Veterans Retraining Assistance Program that offered financial assistance to veterans returning for training in high demand occupations.
“I knew I couldn’t do a physical job anymore … so I went down the list and found Substance Abuse Counselor,” said Feighery.
With the assistance of Stan Rapada at the San Joaquin Delta College Veteran Services Center, Feighery enrolled in the certificate program for Fall 2012.
Conquering the physical and mental challenges of life after devastating illness and treatment, Feighery excelled in her schoolwork and applied for eight scholarships the following Spring.
After the August ceremony where she was awarded seven scholarships, one of the sponsors she met during a scholarship interview urged her to apply for a new position available at Catholic Charities Diocese of Stockton.
Feighery successfully completed the application and interview process. Initially hired as the lead case manager, she became the Director of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program (VetFam).
The SSVF grant was established in 2011 with a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.
Non-profit organizations apply for this grant and use it to provide a range of services geared toward getting homeless vets off the streets, and preventing homelessness among struggling vets.
“A big part of the program is providing wraparound supportive services,” said Feighery.
In addition to monetary assistance, case managers connect vets with community services and organizations that provide practical and financial assistance to make housing attainable and sustainable.
In a mutually beneficial association, Feighery and Rapada refer veterans to each other, creating a supportive network of veterans helping veterans.
A vet’s eligibility to use the GI Bill generally expires 10 years after the end of service. Some veterans who need new job skills after that time has passed don’t know there are other options before their financial situation becomes critical.
According to Feighery, because connecting a vet to government benefits or to a new job can take a long time, one of the quickest ways to secure a vet’s income and housing conditions is to have them enroll in school.
Registered student Micah Trahan’s personal journey into homelessness spanned 23 years of refusing the benefits she had earned by her time in the Army.
“After the military, I vowed to never go back to the government for anything after what they’d done to me,” said Trahan, who said she suffered physical and mental trauma during her service.
“I’m a logical person, I thought logic would just snap together like a puzzle and I’d be moving on. It doesn’t work that way,” said Trahan.
The VetFam program helped Trahan progress from the streets, to the homeless shelter, to a boarding house and eventually into her own rental home.
With her benefits in place and her feet firmly planted, her new goal is to study at Delta for a career in social services.
Trahan said she was raised to believe life is about making a difference, “not just to exist but to set a path for somebody else, to make it easier, to make a mark.”
Delta psychology student Darwin Drew, a former Coast Guardsman, suffered a loss of income during the recession, ultimately losing his house and temporarily moving in with his father.
“We’ve all got something wrong, you know, I was making it until now,” said Drew.
When that arrangement became untenable, Drew found his own place.
“VetFam helped me with my PG&E bill and helped me stay in my place,” said Drew.
Now, many of these veterans are also spreading the word.
“A lot of the veterans that we’ve helped, like some of the ones you’ve already interviewed, they’re now directing veterans immediately to us, so that’s really a good source of our referrals,” said Feighery.
She is now paying forward the second chance she found at Delta by helping current and future students find stability and new directions for their own lives.
“People who feel disconnected have a higher rate of homelessness. A lot of students that go to Delta, that sense of reconnection really helps pull them out of homelessness” said Feighery.
CLARIFICATION, PUBLISHED MAY 14, 2015: Feighery’s Army Reserve service was over before cancer ended her 15-year civilian Federal service career.