“It’s never too late to start over again, dreams can come true at any age”
Chicago Army Veteran Johnnie Mims, 60, has a steel-trap mind capable of rattling off to the day—and maybe the hour—the length of time since he left the military. After his service ended in 1975, Mr. Mims looked forward to applying his military experience to civilian life. He got a job at the U.S. Postal Service. He married. He had daughters.
Within about 10 years, though, problems surfaced. Mr. Mims split with his wife in 1984. He began using alcohol. Life issues accumulated until Mr. Mims was no longer able to hold down a job. Lacking steady income, he became homeless and remained without a permanent home for 19 years.
Bright spots appeared during this time: Thanks to a 45-day treatment program at the North Chicago Veterans Affairs (VA) facility, Mr. Mims achieved sobriety in 1993. He obtained odd jobs helping his buddy sell golf equipment. He worked on and off at VA facilities. He looked after his grandkids. Yet he often didn’t feel well and regular employment eluded him. He spent years living with his daughter, without a home of his own.
Not one to give up, Mr. Mims continued to visit Chicago-area VA facilities, where he received medical care and other VA services.
His life was transformed in 2015, he said, when he got a spot in VA’s Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) program at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. CWT helps prepare under- or unemployed Veterans like Mr. Mims for competitive employment.
“CWT changed my life,” Mr. Mims said. “I worked in the wellness center helping Veterans exercise and exercising myself. I enjoyed being around other Veterans. Vets learn from other Vets, and I learned a lot.”
CWT assigns Veterans jobs that pay a nontaxable stipend, which in Mr. Mims’s case was between $400 and $500 every two weeks. “I had a job and a fitness routine,” he said. “I started feeling better.”
He also secured housing with assistance from the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program.
Around this time, VA launched the Homeless Veterans Community Employment Services (HVCES) program. HVCES staffs VA Medical Centers around the country with nearly 150 community employment coordinators (CECs) who help homeless Veterans secure gainful employment.
As one of her first acts as Jesse Brown’s CEC, Mrs. Beatrice Smith-Redd in May 2015 arranged a hiring event with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). At the VA-hosted event, Mr. Mims and 29 other Veterans learned how to navigate the complicated online postal job application process. Once applications were submitted, applicants were to check emails daily and respond to any information requests within three days.
According to Mrs. Smith-Redd, Mr. Mims approached the task with remarkable tenacity. Although he could review email on his phone, he had to use VA’s computer lab to respond to USPS inquiries.
“Every time Mr. Mims received an email, he came to VA in person—four or five times during the process—to respond right away,” Mrs. Smith-Redd said. “And then one morning as I went to work, I saw him at the bus stop in a suit, tie and overcoat—he was on his way to an interview.”
In July 2015, Mr. Mims landed a temporary job as a USPS custodian, for $13.25 per hour. His supervisor praised the quality of his work and his co-workers enjoyed working with him.
Still, Mr. Mims wasn’t quite satisfied—he was determined to convert his temporary position into a permanent one within a year. Beating his own goal, he became full time in eight months, and now earns a comfortable salary, overtime pay and benefits. The permanent spot offers more opportunity for promotion. “I feel good,” he said.
“As Mr. Mims shows, said Mrs. Redd. “Every time I see him, he’s smiling. Dreams can come true at any age.”
It helps even more, she added, when employers like USPS are willing toF work with CECs and Veterans on navigating job application processes and accessing meaningful employment.
The other part of the equation, Mr. Mims said, is that Veterans must never give up, no matter their situation.
“I’m living proof of that,” he said. “You’ve got to keep going, and keep trying. Look at me.”