Today we’d like to introduce you to Erica Parks.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Erica. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I am an Army veteran and never in a million years would I have ever thought this would be my story. On May 11, 2011, I received my master’s in public health degree in health policy and management from the University of Georgia. It was an exciting moment for me and my family because I am a first-generation college graduate. However, it was the beginning of my worst nightmare. It’s the day I became chronically unemployed. I could have never imagined the next 38 months of my life, not only facing unemployment, but financial hardships, foreclosure, eviction, and lack of resources.
Despite of being a hard worker, very ambitious, and driven by self-development, I struggled. It was at that moment, I realized that there were very limited community resources for veterans. I was experiencing the delayed effects of transition stress.
Refusing to be defeated or becoming another veteran statistic for homelessness, addiction, or suicides, I chose to advocate for myself. I contacted various social service agencies and government entities for help. My list included but is not limited to, the local VA hospital, my congressional leaders, veteran-focused nonprofits, Fannie Mae Housing Counselors, Neighborhood Assistance Corporation Association Program, and the Georgia Department of Labor. Unfortunately, I was repeatedly told, there was nothing that they could do to help my situation.
In 2013, my story was featured on Fox 5 News and the Georgia Department of Labor for the Paychecks for Patriots initiative. Later, that same year in December, my story was featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This experience exposed the gaps in our systems that create unnecessary stressors for veterans, their families, and graduates. It also showed the lack of care, broken processes, and systemic issues concerning the veteran community.
After applying for 200+ jobs, advancing my professional skills, interviewing with numerous employers, and jumping through hurdles, I became frustrated. My frustration with the broken system and processes became my passion.
February 2015, I started working as a Health Promotion Officer/ORISE Fellow for 32 months. My appointment was with The United States Army Training Center and Fort Jackson and Army Public Health Center. In this role, I facilitated the installation’s Community Health Promotion Council (CHPC) process, which was a public health pilot process for the commanding general. As a special senior staff member, I was responsible for building relationships across functional lines of commands and integrating tactical, medical and Garrison assets, to improve the holistic health of the population.
This experience has been one of the major highlights of my career. It gave me a better understanding of the problems that exist within the military. No longer a soldier, I was looking at the military from a different perspective, as the expert for the CHPC process. I had valuable insight to offer to assist the installation in enhancing their programs and services to meet the real-time community needs. The problems I saw, will lead to a veteran experiencing transition stressors.
The ORISE fellowship experience intensified my desire to become more heavily involved in policy. My focus was set on becoming a congressional staffer, but God had another plan for me. Instead of moving to Washington, D.C., I came back to my hometown, Atlanta, Georgia, and immediately started revisiting the congressional offices, and engaging in the Mayoral Race campaign.
The hunger to work in policy never left; therefore, Camouflage Me Not (CMN) was birth because I saw nothing had changed concerning veterans. I knew I had to be the one to stand up and be the change that I wanted to see. Besides, I was more equipped now, for the mission.
Has it been a smooth road?
No, it has not been a smooth road. I work full-time and long hours in Camouflage Me Not (CMN) with very limited income and resources. There are so many things that I envision and have planned for this organization, but it temporarily lacks the funding that it needs to progress to the level of my expectations.
For example, CMN’s #gladiatorsspeaks initiative needs $75K-$100K in order to research 350 veterans by August 1, 2019. The purpose of this initiative is to examine the transition stressors to become visible and transparent with our congressional leaders. This is one of many research projects we have planned to conduct.
CMN is currently seeking 6-8 professionals for our board of directors to obtain our 501(c) 4 status. Our board must represent our community. They will be veterans, veteran dependents, friends/family members of veterans, social service/medical providers, educators, and our faith leaders. The 501(c) 4 nonprofit status allows us to engage in an unlimited amount of lobbying, related to our mission. Our nonprofit status is vital for us to move forward to advance in our research and lobbying activities.
However, these temporary delays have not stopped the progress CMN has made in its first year. I have worked tirelessly, to spotlight and brand CMN through our initiatives, signature fundraising event, while building community partnerships and donor relationships.
Please tell us about Camouflage Me Not.
Camouflage Me Not (CMN), is a new initiative, designed to create a social awareness to holistically enhance the transition process for women and minority veterans. CMN means, “Don’t Hide Me” or “Don’t Throw Me Away”. We provide a holistic and community approach to alleviate transition stress by conducting needs assessments, key informant interviews, focus groups, etc. to lobby for policies impacting the quality of life of veterans and their dependents. Our uniqueness allows us to have a seat at the table with decision-makers, instead of providing a direct service for veterans. We know that this is where programs are created or the lack thereof.
There is a call to action to address the systemic issues that hinders veterans and their dependents from successfully transitioning. Furthermore, changing and implementing policies to invest in an effective transition process. Many times, veterans feel like they have been thrown away after they have served our nation.
Literature review has suggested, “42%-72% of veterans experience high levels of stress during transition to civilian life; Post 9/11 veterans who were married during service have a tough time readjusting, and Married while serving reduces the chances of re-entry from 63% to 48%.” Veterans have trouble trying to connect and reconnect with loved ones and the community; some experience homelessness due to broken relationships; and problems finding quality jobs.
The veteran community is extremely talented, mission-driven, with great insight. Some veterans have not been given the opportunity to share their gifts and talents beyond their military service. I truly believe that we (veterans) have yet to tap into the essence of our true existence. This is where CMN comes in.
Camouflage Me Not takes pride in rebranding the image of veterans. We (veterans) have never agreed to the image that has been forced upon us by society.
Our advocacy efforts will champion creating a transition wraparound service early in the service members military career. Indeed, extending post-military to eliminate transition stress.
Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Yes, Atlanta is an excellent place to start a business like Camouflage Me Not. There is a need for more deliberate advocacy and lobbying on behalf of veterans and their dependents. I would strongly recommend similar organizations to start here, especially if they have properly conducted their needs assessment to support their company’s mission.
- To donate to Camouflage Me Not, visit our website at www.camouflagemenot.com.
- Address: 227 Sandy Springs Place
STE. D438 Sandy Springs, Georgia 30328
- Website: www.camouflagemenot.com
- Phone: (404) 836-3781
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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