Peering to Solid Ground
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alexis Emm
When Venecia DeRoose left the United States Navy, she knew she wanted to help veterans. The following year, shortly after Veterans Day in 2014, she joined the team at Clear Path for Veterans as a peer mentor. Now, she’s nearly a year into heading up the organization’s expansion of services into the Broome County area.
“We want to give [veterans in the Broome County area] the full experience of Clear Path headquarters,” Venecia said.
Venecia was born in Trinidad, and moved to Brooklyn in 2000 to attend college. She held a full-time job and took a full load of classes, but soon realized it wasn’t the most sustainable way to live.
A friend of the family had joined the Navy, inspiring Venecia to consider that option. She asked a couple people for their opinions, and they responded, “It couldn’t hurt.” And by enlisting, she wouldn’t have years of paying back student loans looming ahead of her. So, she signed up in 2005, and began bootcamp in June 2006.
“It was a culture shock for me, because they started yelling at us as soon as we got off the bus,” she remembered.
Venecia trained to be a mechanic. After getting ranked, she was assigned to an aircraft carrier in 2007, and deployed to the Mediterranean from June to December that year. She was then assigned to shore duty. In June 2011, she was again deployed, this time to Afghanistan. When President Obama began to call troops back, she returned to the United States in December 2011.
In March 2013, she left the Navy, after almost seven years of active duty. On a new path, Venecia then devoted her energy to helping fellow veterans.
She initially worked at Catholic Charities on a grant designed to help homeless or vulnerably-housed veterans. In that position, Venecia often had meetings at Clear Path for Veterans, and would refer veterans she worked with to services at Clear Path.
Then, a position in the Clear Path for Veterans Wingman Program opened, and Venecia was hired.
As a peer mentor, Venecia’s No. 1 goal is to help veterans establish stability. This happens in a variety of ways, from connections to help with housing to SNAP benefits to employment. She usually assists 15 to 20 people at any given time. Sometimes, it means checking once every week or two. Sometimes, it means more time devoted to a specific veteran. It always depends on the needs of the individual, she said.
“It’s all about empowering them to become independent and self-sustaining,” she explained.
The Clear Path for Veterans Wingman Program is funded in part by New York State’s Joseph Dwyer Grant, a grant in honor and remembrance of PFC Joseph Dwyer, a veteran who took his life after returning home from serving in Iraq. Joseph’s family thought if he’d had “someone to walk the path with him,” Venecia said, he might still be alive today.
Now, the grant is also helping to fund peer-to-peer support in Broome County, efforts Venecia began heading up at the end of last year.
Since Clear Path only has office space in Broome County — and not an area for veteran services — connections with the community have been important, Venecia explained, adding that area politicians have been happy to be involved and attend events, too.
Venecia isn’t working alone, she stressed. Early this year, two more Clear Path staff members joined the team. Now, they all work to continue forging connections with community members, businesses and leaders, get the word out to veterans in the area, and, of course, offer peer support.
They’re currently working to establish a “one-stop shop” for veterans.
“It’s going to be one place where veterans can come in and receive multiple services,” Venecia said.
The Broome County Clear Path team is also working to establish veteran housing in a central location.
Overall, the new responsibilities can be overwhelming at times, Venecia admitted, since three people are replicating many of the services the entire Clear Path campus offers in Syracuse. But their efforts have been met well and successful so far, she said with a smile.
It’s been “very rewarding,” Venecia said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.” SWM
For more information on Clear Path for Veterans, visit clearpath4vets.com.