Serving those who have served with dignity and respect

Tuesday, July 19, 2016 by Maureen Fries

Jesus Riviera loves life and embraces it, immersing himself in the project at hand - be that as a nurse in the US Army, a visitor in a foreign country, a college student pursuing a culinary arts degree or community liaison for homeless veterans. He wears many hats and he is comfortable in all of them.  

But the path to get here has been a long and winding one.

Jesus loves to cook, having learned early in life under his grandmother’s tutelage. But in order to serve, to do his part, Jesus put his love for the culinary arts on the back burner and instead chose to pursue nursing in college. He took that training and enlisted in the army, where he spent nine and a half years serving his country.  Following his discharge from the military in 2006, Jesus traveled to Miami at a friend’s invitation, and like many people, he stayed. He found good jobs, including a seven and a half year stint with William-Sonoma, working his way up from floor salesman to account management and events planning. As far as the outside world was concerned, Jesus had a very successful life.

Internally, however, life was not so rosy. Having desensitized and numbed himself to the horrors of war, he was unaware of just how much that post-traumatic stress affected him. “I was one of those who thought they weren’t being affected by it. I was productive over there,” he explained. “I was helping others, I was being an advocate.”

But, looking back, he admits that he had not taken the time to properly transition from the military. “I disregarded my emotional training and my emotional balance. I rushed into being employed and that really threw me off. But I just went for it because I knew in society what’s expected is to have a job, to have security.”

Jesus turned to alcohol to fill a void in his life, but after a while, “it became way too much to handle. I started missing work, I felt agitated. I was irritated all the time.” And the job became a casualty of his internal war.

The money ran out, the party ended, his friends disappeared and his landlord gave him a week to get out. “I was a wreck,” he recounted. “When I hit rock bottom, I was emotionally drained, I was physically drained. I had no monetary compensation whatsoever.” He was able to couch surf for a couple of months, but he knew the streets could be his next home.

He knew he needed help, so he called the crisis hotline at the Veterans Administration. With help from the Health Center for Homeless Veterans, Jesus qualified for a transitional housing program for homeless veterans run by Camillus House.  

“It really breaks your heart to see anyone sleeping on the street,” explained Brother Bill Osmanski of the Brothers of St. John of God, the Catholic Order that operates Camillus House & Health.  “But it’s especially sad when it’s someone who’s served his or her country. That’s why it’s a priority for us and others to bring the number of homeless vets in Miami down to zero.”

The St. Michael’s Residences opened in 2000, and is dedicated to ending homelessness for veterans.  To qualify, clients must be homeless veterans referred by the VA and drug and alcohol free.  Designed to guide participants in gaining full time employment, the program also provides ongoing case management, job placement assistance, life skills training and assistance accessing benefits.  To date it has helped over 520 homeless veterans by offering them a secure living environment to interact and support one another. 

It was shortly after arriving at St. Michael’s in February 2016 that Jesus volunteered for the Community Liaison position, where it is his responsibility to help those fellow veterans as soon as they transition into the residence. “I’m not just succeeding for myself, I’m succeeding for others. I’m being the living compass and roadmap, those are the tools being provided by the Camillus House umbrella for support and extending that to my brothers to follow.”

Jesus says he was born to this role. “I feel that Camillus really has put on the hat, if you will, for me to go ahead and attain that position. It’s so important that we give back for everything that’s given to us.”

Since February, Jesus has completed the Miami Dade College (MDC) certification program, has enrolled in the 2 year culinary Associates degree program, works in the MDC purchasing office in the work study program through Lindsey Hopkins and has been offered a job by that department, and is well on his way toward realizing his dream of becoming an executive chef.

“Every day, I’m thankful for the smallest things. And that energy is contagious because it’s such a positive thing. This situation, it’s unfortunate that it’s occurred, but I’m embracing it and I’m making the best of it. I wouldn’t change it. This is just a stop along the road, not the final destination.”


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