February 22, 2017
By Joey Whimple, Fellow Alum

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Joey Whimple (left) and Valerie Brooks (right) at the Ali Forney Center’s annual holiday party. Valerie is a Mission Continues Fellow Alum who now works at the Center!

Dreams can come true, but don’t always happen the way you planned…

Realizing My Dreams, Finding My Calling

My military odyssey was unique compared to other service members. My adolescent years were unquestionably unsettling, confusing and grim. At the age of 17, I enlisted in the Army as a female. I put the puzzle pieces together that I needed to transition when I was 19. To dodge any sort of issues, I kept quiet about it while serving in my unit. I held my breath and waited patiently until I was honorably discharged to make any moves medically.

During the time when I kept my authentic concerns about my gender muted, I struggled emotionally to no end. I would show up to my unit to perform as a top-notch soldier and rush straight back to my barracks room to cry because of how uncomfortable I was in my own skin.

When I had the chance to leave chaotic Army life behind on the weekends, I reached out to others in my area that either had experience with transitioning or knew of any other transgender individuals. Since I was stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia, finding those who had compassion towards my situation was strenuous.

Somehow, the universe had my back and I was able to make a few strong connections with other transgender people in my tiny pocket of the deep south. I started seeing a gender therapist who helped me get to a better place in my life. Session after session, I underwent emotional breakthroughs that caused me to face my demons and push through to a more positive mindset. Therapy helped me become a more confident, well-rounded person.

During this period in my life, my company commander approved of my education benefits and I started attending night school. I initially pursued psychology because I felt inspired by my gender therapist to become one myself. I desired to be a hero for those who were as forlorn as I once was. I had this distinct vision of providing relief for those who were struggling just as once as I was. I wanted to be the hero I needed when I was 18 years old and in such a dark place.

Even if my unit was completing field training exercises in the 98-degree heat, I would take out my notes covered in Georgia red clay to simply retain the information for my exams. I was determined to be the kind of hero I once needed. What was disheartening was that while I had a fire inside to help those struggling, I could not retain the biology I needed to get my Bachelor of Science degree and become a therapist. Because of this, I let the dream just slip from my fingertips.

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Joey (left) and other fellows at the service project for Charlie 2016 Orientation in Minneapolis

Making My Dreams Come True

I ended up fluctuating between career opportunities involving journalism and human resources. Exploring alternative career paths ultimately led me to find The Mission Continues and the Fellowship Program.

While searching for my fellowship host organization, I began exploring all the vast New York City nonprofit opportunities. To my surprise, I stumbled across the Ali Forney Center. Seeing the address and realizing how close it was to home made my eyes widen in enthusiasm.

I was to be placed in Ali Forney’s “Leap” program which is the “Learning Employment Advancement Placement” program. Throughout “Leap,” the homeless individual would arrive at the center’s learning lab where they are assisted by the “Leap” staff on an intimate basis to create resumes, cover letters, and to improve interviewing and other life skills. For an individual who is struggling with their housing situation, this program is beyond critical.

After a few days of working in the “Leap Learning Lab” and getting to assist clients on a personal level, I had a fascinating realization. I took a client for a mock interview with them. They were transgender themselves, and we ended up having an hour long conversation. We dove into their feelings, emotions, their troubles with family and transitioning overall.

At that moment, it finally hit me; I was in the role that I chased when I was younger and studying psychology. I was by no means a mental health provider, but I was sharing my struggle and helping others who were in similar situations. At the end of the conversation, the client shook my hand and thanked me for being supportive and understanding.

I took a moment to just sit in the conference room alone to absorb everything. I looked out the window at the hectic Manhattan street. I stood in shock with my hands deep into my jean pockets. I was so wrapped up with my life and trying to make it as a business professional that had I completely forgot about the goals I had when I was younger.

It was delayed, but my dreams, as well as career goals, came true. I was the hero I had needed years before. I did not need my own mental health office to provide hope. I was finally the role model I needed when I was hopeless.

 

Report for duty in your community with The Mission Continues. Serve with a Service Platoon at an upcoming service event near you or apply for a fellowship. You can learn more about our programs on our website and stay updated on the latest news and announcements on Facebook and twitter.