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For veteran volunteers, story is part of the work

May. 28, 2014 - 09:06AM   |  
Spencer Kympton, center, president of The Mission Continues, speaks to the group's new fellows before their May 17 swearing-in at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Spencer Kympton, center, president of The Mission Continues, speaks to the group's new fellows before their May 17 swearing-in at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (The Mission Continues)
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Jules Toraya rattled off his life story as quickly as he could: a desire for public service, five years in the Army, environmental work for the last four, and now a new fellowship to help vets find jobs. Then he glanced at the clock.

“Forty-five seconds? That felt like forever!” he gasped, drawing laughs from the other veterans circled around him.

As part of The Mission Continues fellowship program, Toraya — a 31-year-old former captain — will spend the next six months donating hundred of hours to Hire Heroes USA, finding ways to help other veterans ease their transition from military to civilian jobs.

But the volunteer work is only half the job. Mission Continues officials also train fellows on public engagement and personal marketing, including “elevator pitches” like the one Toraya was perfecting.

Officials say it’s part of a larger effort to change what they see as a largely negative picture of this generation of troops. Helping others isn’t enough; fellows also must recruit the next class of volunteers, and help alter the public narrative on what it means to be a veteran.

“Talking about young veterans isn’t just PTSD, homelessness and unemployment,” group spokesman Nick Zevely told the newest crop of fellows during their training in Arlington, Virginia, on May 17. “That’s not the story we want to tell, and that’s not the legacy we want to leave behind.”

So, they’re practicing their stories. In coming months, staffers will challenge them to review and refine those stories further, though writing assignments and interactions with co-workers.

The fellowship program welcomed 98 new members in May, putting it over 1,000 in its seven years of operations. By this fall, the program will have totaled more than half a million volunteer hours across the nation, not counting separate service platoon projects and outreach efforts.

Participants get a stipend for the work (averaging about $1,200 a month) and a chance to engage with local community advocates.

In exchange, they must document not just their volunteer hours but also their impact. They’re given monthly writing and reflection assignments, must show off their bright blue Mission Continues T-shirts and gear as often as possible, and collect photos of their work.

Group officials say it’s not about advertising as much as it is about outreach. Volunteer work is important, but bridging the divide between veterans and the vast majority of civilians who never served is an even bigger goal.

Jonathon Anderson, a 28-year-old former Marine sergeant, will do his volunteer work with domestic violence shelters in the Chicago area, mentoring boys in need of positive role models. He said the fellowship gave him a chance to boost his volunteer credentials and better network with local community groups. But his reasons for joining went further.

“The program helps connect you,” he said. “Having everyone working together, it gives a bigger meaning to all of it.”

The highlight of the new fellowship training program was a service project to repair and repaint the aging Hart Middle School in southeast Washington, D.C. Mission Continues members worked alongside local volunteers, sharing both their stories and the workload throughout the afternoon.

Mission Continues officials will be accepting applications for their next set of fellows until June 2. In the meantime, they’re already asking current fellows to submit more pictures of their work in the field, to help showcase veterans’ stories wherever they can.

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