Updated: Mar 28, 2019
by Laurie Christiansen
The Department of Veterans Affairs mission is “To fulfill President Lincoln's promise ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”
Over the years since 09/11 there have been 6 VA Secretaries, with an average tenure of slightly less than three years, and 5 Acting Secretaries of the VA averaging 2 months, sprinkled between the VA Secretaries. Given the enormity of the mission stated above and the vision of the VA (“To provide veterans the world-class benefits and services they have earned - and to do so by adhering to the highest standards of compassion, commitment, excellence, professionalism, integrity, accountability, and stewardship.”) it is not unreasonable to understand why the second largest department in the US government has experienced years of difficulty supporting both statements.
On a smaller scale, there is a model community based non-profit program providing a more
comprehensive and personal approach to those most in need in our Veteran population – those who are homeless. These Veterans have personal injuries from their service (the invisible wounds of war, as well as, physical limitations) and over half have histories of some form of addiction.
It is Habitat PLUS, based in Lynn, MA, and has been in operation for 30 years and whose Mission is: “To provide supportive sober housing to psychiatrically disables Veterans who would otherwise be homeless, and to provide program participants with information and advocacy to access existing service programs. The goal for program participants is to maintain stable housing.” Co-Founders, Susan Campbell and Bernadette Forti, began Habitat PLUS in remembrance of Stanley J. Egan, Susan’s first cousin, who was killed in action in Vietnam at the age of 20. Susan’s family comes with a long history of military service; her father served in Korea, and many of her uncles and cousins served as well. Her cousin, Fred Sawin (pictured below), was a Vietnam era paratrooper.
Habitat PLUS (HP) was featured in the Fall 2018 SEMAG which chronicles their mission and commitment to Veterans who reside within their program.
Their key staff member that provides the care and protection of their Veterans is their Manager, Kevin Winchell. Kevin has had an interesting past which has led him to where he is and what he cares most about today, helping others, mostly Veterans. When I asked him what brought him to where he is today, he replied without a nanosecond of hesitation, “My mother, Linda. She always did everything for everyone.” As the youngest of seven children, he saw firsthand how much his mother helped others, how difficult it was for the family when his father died from heart problems when Kevin was nine, and how hard she worked to keep the family together. When his first wife became pregnant, Kevin decided not to join the military, wanting to be with his son after having grown up without his father. His caring nature was enhanced over the years by experiencing events that, instead of hardening him, resulted in an enhanced empathy and understanding of human nature, and gave him more insight and skill in dealing with the Veterans, for whom he would come to devote his life’s work.
It was his mother Linda who introduced him to Bernadette and Susan and the disabled Veterans of HP. Linda, a direct care staff member, worked at HP until she passed away at age 59. Kevin was always interested in Veterans and here was a chance to learn more. He learned quickly about the psychiatric disabilities and needs of the Veterans at HP, understanding the impact of the sacrifices they made during their service to country, and how much they needed someone to talk to, while learning to manage their disabilities, and feel safe again.
Kevin started out in the live-in maintenance position, helping HP with the maintenance issues that so often surfaced in the homey 1847 Victorian (see picture in Fall 2018 SEMAG). However, his ability to learn quickly, combined with his compassion, resulted in his eventual promotion to Manager of the two residential programs. Growing up poor, in a hard scrabble city where survival at school took precedent over learning, Kevin was convinced that he wasn’t as smart as others. So, he learned by watching what everyone else did, maintenance and repair folks, and now knows there is nothing he cannot do to help, if you use common sense and are curious enough to learn. Bernadette began pestering him about his
abandonment of his education and in his early 40’s he studied for and passed his GED, an impressive accomplishment that few others cared enough to bother helping him address.
Another impactful incident occurred about 12+ years ago when Kevin experienced an extreme case of poison ivy. (If you have ever experienced it, you know what it means). The prescription from his doctor was a pill pack of prednisone, a corticosteroid. Not realizing at the time that prednisone, in a small percentage of people, can cause a temporary psychosis. Kevin took two pills (not knowing about his high sensitivity to the medication) which sent him into a paranoid state from which it took him 8 weeks to completely recover. After two weeks away from HP he returned to work, but the paranoia continued to haunt him where every normal incident he witnessed at HP convinced him they were going to fire him, didn’t want him to work there anymore, he wasn’t to be trusted. Of course, this was not actually the case. Once he recovered, he looked with gratitude at the experience of having paranoia because it gave him a small window into what the psychiatrically disabled Veterans he serves experience on a regular basis. Once he knew what it felt like, it only served to deepen his love and respect for the Veterans, who must struggle to manage similar and larger challenges every day.
Soon after that a friend asked him to visit a similar program for Veterans that was looking for a new director. After seeing how the Veterans were treated, receiving no staff help when trying to prepare a meal in the kitchen on their own, he decided to see what else the staff was doing. He found them in a room upstairs away from the kitchen playing video games. He also visited other residential programs as well. It was then that he realized that the programs that HP’s founders had designed and implemented were a cut far above the rest. He came away knowing that he was exactly where he should be, and he has devoted his life to those HP Veterans ever since.
Kevin is a burly guy with a big heart. He has used the downsides of his life as learning experiences that have made him a better person, not a bitter man. Growing up without his dad after age nine, suffering a serious back injury from an accident when he was twenty that still causes pain, losing his beloved mom in 2002, and experiencing paranoia from an unfortunate prescription have all contributed to making his heart and sense of compassion for others grow. He has given the shirt off his back to someone in need, many more times than you could imagine. He is happily remarried to a woman he met shooting darts and they have two teenagers, a son and a daughter, as well as his son from his first marriage. He continues to give his all to HP and is a genuinely a happy man. It was my privilege to meet Kevin and spend time getting to know him.
He faithfully works for the Veterans of the program at HP. In Bernadette’s words “Kevin’s capacity for giving is truly inspirational. He’s their big brother, father and confidant. The dedication, love and support he offers our Veterans is truly a wonderous thing to see, but I do still have to chase him for his paperwork.” Susan adds that “…staff turnover in human services can be high, as these are not high paying positions, so believe me, he is not here for the money. But it also means that the Veterans are not deeply affected by the turnover, as Kevin jumps in and takes over any open position until we can hire new staff, so that the Veterans always feel safe and well taken care of”.
Another tribute to Kevin from the co-founders:
“Kevin is the kind of guy, who will go to any length to see that the Veterans get what they need. One of HP’s psychiatrically disabled veterans, who we will call Bill, was experiencing a bout of paranoia. While driving in his car one night, and listening to Bob Seger’s song Turn the Page, Bill said the lyrics kept going over and over in his head, “On a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha, you can listen to the engine moanin’ out it’s one note song…”
“The Veteran had long wanted to find his father, who many, many years earlier had abandoned the family, most likely due to his own mental health issues, and had moved to Texas. So, Bill just kept driving, for days, until he ended up in Texas. Without his medications, he had decompensated and ended up hospitalized in a VA in Texas. Once he was discharged from the VA there, he was still in no shape to be driving back to Boston. Bill was eventually put on a plane and returned to Boston. The VA in Texas helped this veteran hire someone to drive his car as far as Philadelphia, but couldn’t find anyone to get it back to Lynn, MA. Once home, the veteran was perseverating over how to get his car back home. Kevin could see that this alone may lead to another decompensation, so he went to South Station and got on a train to New York City, and from there, a bus to Philadelphia and then a cab to the lot where the Veteran’s car was being stored. Kevin then drove the car back through the night to Lynn and returned it to the Veteran. That is the kind of guy he is.”
There are no words that adequately describe what a difference HP and their staff make for their Veterans. Let us hope, as time moves forward that the Veterans Administration, new important research and medical programs like the Red Sox Home Base Foundation, and community-based programs, such as Habitat PLUS, can continue partnering to expand meaningful programs for our Veterans, who gave so much for our country.
Additional information on Habitat PLUS can be found on the web site: www.habitatplus.org or 833.OUR.VETS (833.687.8387)