Restoring Dreams through Employment
He did some substitute teaching, and thought he’d go back to college to get a degree in education. He tried getting an internship with a state representative but that didn’t pan out.
But with the help of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) Vocational Rehabilitation Program, Chambless is now working for a US Congressman and aspires to run for office himself someday.
“I’d exhausted all the avenues, and then talked to Keisha Wright—and a whole new road opened up,” he said.
Wright is a vocational rehabilitation counselor at Paralyzed Veterans’ San Antonio office. She said the day Chambless got his job was an exciting day for her.
“Every success a veteran has is a success for me,” she said. “When a person gets that dream job, I feel like I’m getting that dream job. It’s, ‘I won.’ I win a lot in this job.”
The Paralyzed Veterans Vocational Rehabilitation Program helps all veterans with catastrophic disabilities, as well as family members, develop the skills they need to compete in the job market and then works to match them with businesses with vacancies. Begun in 2007, it’s an innovative public-private partnership with business, the federal government and philanthropy. The program has helped almost 850 veterans with disabilities seek and find satisfying employment through its six offices located at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers across the country.
Matt Kingsley was injured while in the Navy in 1996. He joined Paralyzed Veterans not long after.
“I was involved in a lot of the things (Paralyzed Veterans) puts on, such as the National Veterans Wheelchair Games,” he said. “I got introduced to vocational rehabilitation when I moved to Texas from California. I was at a point of my life I wanted to do something to give back. Going back to work was a way to do that—to give back.”
However, he had doubts. “I never really said it aloud, but my thoughts were, ‘How good can I be—I’m in a wheelchair. Am I going to be able to do any good?’ Part of that was going through my mind, even though I’m confident and have always been a go-getter.”
That attitude was changed by the Paralyzed Veterans’ voc rehab counselors, who helped him understand that he had much to offer employers.
“The people at Vocational Rehabilitation reassured me that seeking and finding employment would be to my benefit as well as others’. I jumped in with both feet. I was pretty eager and excited about getting involved after talking to them.”
While the Paralyzed Veterans’ vocational rehabilitation program has helped many veterans return to school and find satisfying careers, the sad fact is that the unemployment rate for veterans with catastrophic disabilities is 85 percent. Program consultant Louis Irvin said much of that is due to existing expectations.
“We’re reshaping the expectation,” Irvin said. “We’re making the attitudes more and more that people with catastrophic disabilities return to work because that’s what other people do after they’re injured.”
Patrick McCallister is a reporter in Florida and frequent contributor to PN Magazine.