Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Vets: CWT is 'best thing that could have happened'
It seemed like everything was going great for Quinton Maiola.
His six years in the U.S. Army, where he became a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic, had trained him well, leading to a job servicing corporate and private jets.
Even when he lost that job after the recession hit in 2008, he was able to return to school and get a degree in electronics. Between his mechanical background and his electronics training, he had no trouble finding work.
“I was a pretty valuable asset coming into a lot of maintenance teams,” he said.
Meanwhile, he had gotten married and was raising a family. He had a comfortable home and amenities, like a boat and motorcycle.
But things he had ignored for so long began to take their toll, and before he knew it, he was jobless and homeless.
“Everything came crashing down,” he said. “Careerwise, I was doing well, but my home life was starting to fall apart around me with my alcoholism, my depression and PTSD. All that stuff finally just caught up with me.”
His wife left him, and they eventually divorced. Unsure what to do next, he “threw (his) stuff in the car” and began an itinerant life.
His drinking continued. He couldn’t hold a job. He totaled his car and got mixed up with drugs.
“They referred me to Union Grove, and that's when everything started happening for me. I just started getting my life back together again."Quinton Maiola
Finally, his mother pleaded with him to return to Wisconsin, which led him to getting the help he needed from Veterans Affairs.
“They referred me to Union Grove, and that’s when everything started happening for me,” he said. “I just started getting my life back together again.”
He got the medical and mental help he needed, and then turned to the Compensated Work Therapy program at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center to begin the climb back up the job ladder.
The 38-year-old now works full time in housekeeping in the hospital while living in the Transitional Residence house, slowly moving toward independence.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I feel I was supposed to go through everything that I went through. It had to break me down to build me back up. I had to see things for what they really were. It was like a spiritual transition.”
Achieving her goals at 50
Manina Adkins has also benefited from the CWT program, but her story is far different from Maiola’s.
The 50-year-old Milwaukee woman joined the Marines when she was 19. She worked as a film librarian in Quantico, Va., but left the military after three years when she became pregnant with her son.
She fled an abusive relationship with her son’s father, returning to Wisconsin to pursue a degree at UW-Milwaukee in criminal justice.
She met and married a man, and she continued her studies.
But when her grandmother died, Adkins found herself in a deep depression.
“I couldn’t work – I was 26 at the time. I just stayed home,” she said, noting that she was raised by her father and grandmother because her mother was plagued by mental illness. “My husband took care of me, but that was rough.”
An attempt to return to school to study nursing failed.
“I don’t know if it was the school, the classes, the teachers or what. But it wasn’t working out that well,” she said.
She eventually found her way to the pharmacy technician program at Milwaukee Area Technical College, where she excelled. She graduated and landed a job at a Walgreens in Milwaukee.
When her husband purchased a convenience store in Prairie City, Ill., a tiny town about 50 miles west of Peoria, she reluctantly left her job and moved with him to work in the store.
“The first year was good. The second year was not good,” she said. “Then he got into an accident. Some old man, like in his 80s, ran into his legs while he was putting suitcases in the back trunk. He lost both of his legs.”
From there, things began to spiral downward. She tried to keep the store running but couldn’t. Her health began to deteriorate due to high blood pressure and other ailments.
She and her husband ended up getting divorced, though not by her choice. “I love my husband and wanted to stay with him,” she said.
Jobless, alone and in poor health, Adkins ended up on disability and back in Milwaukee. But for Adkins to receive her stipend, a judge required her to work at least part time. And he directed her to VA.
"Things are going good. I'm training, and I'm back in the pharmacy. I'm enjoying it."Manina Adkins
She began receiving treatment for her many physical ailments and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which she learned she inherited from her mother.
Psychologist Dr. Sandra Regan steered her toward the CWT program, which eventually got her back to working as a pharmacy technician.
“They are really good,” she said, noting that finding a job was a struggle because she needed to update her training because of rapid changes in pharmacy work.
“Things are going good. I’m training and I’m back in the pharmacy. I’m enjoying it,” she said. “It’s been 13 years, and things have changed; it’s all new to me. But I’m enjoying myself.”
Helping Vets achieve their potential
While treating Veterans’ physical and mental afflictions is a hallmark of VA, so too is helping Veterans find meaningful and fulfilling work. And that’s where the Compensated Work Therapy program comes in.
As Maiola and Adkins’ stories show, Veterans can face a myriad of obstacles when it comes to finding work.
“Our job is to help mitigate those barriers … and help them be able to improve their life,” said Anne-Marie Nelson, CWT program manager.
Teamwork is a linchpin of CWT. As opposed to being a stand-alone jobs program, CWT integrates all aspects of VA to assure Veterans are getting the treatment and support they need.
“The VA connects all these services together for the benefit of the Veteran,” Nelson said. “You don’t find that anywhere else.”
CWT involves three programs, dependent upon the Veteran’s needs:
Supported Employment is for those dealing with “some sort of psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar diagnosis,” Nelson said.
The program is “intense and very individualized according to their needs,” Nelson said, noting that in addition to helping Veterans find a job, CWT counselors provide job coaching and teach employment skills while the Veteran also receives mental health treatment.
Community-Based Employment Services is like Supported Employment, only without the diagnostic component, Nelson said.
“We found there are Veterans that still need that individualized approach, but were not qualifying for that program,” she said. “It’s a little less intensive … because they’re not dealing with (mental illness).”
The Transitional Work Program “is the program most people think of when they hear CWT,” Nelson said. Veterans in this program typically work in the hospital, but some are also placed in jobs in the community.
The program’s focus “to develop a work ethic … build a solid work history and get them a reference to get that job,” Nelson said. “The power of work really adds to our own self-worth.”
Leaving the regimented lifestyle of the military can be jarring to some Veterans. Instead of being told when to be where and what to do nearly every minute of the day, civilian life requires more self-discipline, and not all Veterans adapt readily.
“Our job is to really help them achieve their potential,” Nelson said. “And that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process. … Piece by piece, we build them up.”
'The best thing that could have happened'
Brittan Wood, a CWT counselor, has been working with Adkins for three years as Adkins struggled to get back into pharmacy work.
“Brittan has been fantastic,” Adkins said, noting that Wood is not only her job coach but also her advocate personally and professionally. “She would go down and talk to my boss about things … or if I just needed somebody to talk to. She’s been really good.”
Wood said it was gratifying to help Adkins finally land a spot in the pharmacy.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said, noting that Adkins has been “diligent in achieving her goal. It’s really satisfying to see someone achieve a goal they’ve set. I’m so proud of her.
“It’s neat to see – to know that somebody is capable of something and then see it happen and see how it then affects their everyday life and their confidence in themselves.”
Maiola had similar praise for his CWT experience.
Despite his mechanical and electronics background, Maiola said housekeeping is where he needs to be right now, along with his residency in the TR house.
“My social workers with CWT, they knew what they were doing, and they knew what would be the best fit, and I understand that,” he said. “I had to humble myself to take the position, which is great. I needed that.
“If it wasn't for CWT and all the VA programs, I wouldn't be doing as well as I am now."Quinton Maiola
“They were the ones opening up the doors and so many other options. … It’s more than just a work therapy program. They can point me in the right direction and help me utilize a lot of the resources that the VA offers.”
Maiola plans to return to school next year, this time to study biomedical engineering. He also has taken steps to reconnect with his family.
“This is the best thing that could have happened. If it wasn’t for CWT and all the VA programs, I wouldn’t be doing as well as I am now.”
Those are inspirational words for Nelson.
“It’s amazing when you see someone go through the process and come out the other side, flourish and really take the reins,” she said. “It warms your heart.
“And that’s the reason I come to work every day. You might not see it every day, but there are days where you go home, and you’re like, ‘That’s why I do what I do.’”