The brisk, Midwestern fall left a chill in the air — a perfect night to wrap your hands around a hot bowl of soup in a warm home. Fortunately, for nearly 500 young children in Detroit, the doors to the homeless shelter were open and soup was being served. Their parents had seen these kinds of rough nights before. Not just on the streets of Detroit, but — in many cases — while deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or other locations their country had sent them. They are veterans, and now along with their children, they are homeless.
For many of us, when we think of a service man or woman returning to the U.S., we picture the patriotic welcoming scenes we’ve seen at airports or the heartwarming video of a parent surprising their child at a school assembly after months of deployment.
However, on any given night in America the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that nearly 50,000 veterans are without a place to call home.
Enter Sheila Parson. A veteran herself, Sheila knows what it feels like to be uncertain about the future. Sheila was raised in a poor part of Detroit. And although she pushed herself to do well in school, she was told repeatedly that because she lived in a single-parent household, she would not be able to afford to further her education or plan for a bright future.
Sheila took her future into her own hands. She joined the military to help pay for college and went on to earn her PhD and two master’s degrees. She’s worked for IBM and is now employed by AT&T.
It was Sheila’s smiling face serving soup in the Detroit homeless shelter on that cold night. It’s her second shift. And she does more than serve food to those in need. She also manages a nonprofit organization that she formed, QSA Foundation.
The foundation encourages business leaders to help homeless children and military families in their communities through training, fundraisers and volunteering.
Sheila knows that while it is important to ensure warm, hearty meals for homeless veterans and their families, there is a larger issue that needs addressing. These veterans, so accustomed to the support of a team, need support transitioning back in civilian life and training to succeed.
Through the QSA Foundation, Sheila works with AT&T to provide Wi-Fi for homeless veteran activities around Michigan, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee and pre-paid phones to homeless teens. She also shows them how education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs can help them succeed. Shelia organizes her colleagues to speak to teens and their parents about career paths and she works with local colleges to bring programs like robotics to events to show students how exciting a STEM career could be. Along with the VVW (Vietnam Veteran Wives), the QSA Foundation members also speak to previously incarcerated homeless veterans on finding ways to reintegrate into society through job recommendations, housing help, interview skills and class suggestions.
Sheila isn’t alone in her service. On most nights, she’s joined by people who know a few things about looking after a team: her colleagues, many of whom are veterans themselves.
According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), among many complex issues surrounding homelessness — including lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, shortages of affordable housing, and a lack of access to health care — military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment. Companies across sectors are stepping up to address this issue. In 2013, AT&T announced a goal of hiring 10,000 veterans over the next five years. Since making that commitment, the company has hired more than 9,500 veterans.
When asked to reflect on her impact, Sheila tells the story of Christmas 2014, when more than 450 homeless children attended a holiday event thrown by the QSA Foundation. The organization provided the children with dinner, gifts from Santa, new shoes, clothes, coats and gift cards for items they needed. Some of the teen girls asked Sheila for advice, and she told them her story — and then told them that it was never too early for them to think about their careers. Her advice to the girls was not to let others predict their future. She also advised them to follow their hearts because Sheila knew their current situation did not predict their future life. She’s a living example of that.