Why I’m Passionate about Veteran Community Leaders

What was at first a volunteer passion project has turned into a career.

By Nitza Rivera, volunteer

I have been able to see first-hand how something that may seem so insignificant to one person, can improve the quality of life for another.

I truly believe that veteran leadership in our communities is just as important for the veteran as it is for the community it’s impacting.

With all my military moves through the different parts of this country and abroad, one thing remains constant, and that is the lack of leadership within our communities. It doesn’t necessarily mean that communities don’t care, I think that a lot of the times community members don’t know who to reach out to or where to look for guidance.

Planting and Clearing Garden Beds at Seeds of Faith Community Garden

For me, and other veterans, leaving the service left a void in our passion to serve others. Having the opportunity to use our leadership experience to serve and help mentor members in our communities fills that void. It also provides a platform of peer support for other veterans within the community, and the opportunity for the community to interact and learn about veterans.

How My Passion Led me to The Mission Continues

I learned about The Mission Continues in 2014 while I was stationed in the Twin Cities, MN. I was looking for volunteer projects where I was able to take my daughter to share the experience with her.

Me and my daughter Jaylynn at the Senior Center 2015

After our first community project with the Twin Cities service platoons, where we got to work at a family homeless shelter, I knew that these were the kind of role models and mentors I wanted my daughter to be inspired by.

When I retired from the Army, I knew that I wanted to continue to be part of this great group of people, and in 2015 we signed up with the Tampa 1st Service Platoon.

Bringing Organizations Together: The Mission Continues and Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough County’s relationship with The Mission Continues began when I contacted them to request the opportunity to complete my Mission Continues fellowship with their organization.

I don’t think they knew what they were getting into when they decided to take me on.

Women Build 2018 with Temple Terrace, FL Mayor Dr. Mel Jurado and Jack Suftin, Construction Supervisor

As the first veteran on staff, they quickly learned how passionate I was about serving others, and my drive and commitment to do more for the Hillsborough County veteran community.

And so with that, my love for The Mission Continues and my passion for Habitat kicked off our amazing partnership on November 11th, 2017, Veterans Day.

Habitat Hillsborough also hosted a second fellow, Virnalisse Rodriguez, through the end of July 2018.

Starting Something New: Helping Homeless Veterans

As I learned more about the Habitat mission, I noticed that the amount of veterans being served out our affiliate was very minimal.

In my quest to submit a proposal to become a Veterans Build Affiliate, I found that Hillsborough County has nearly 100,000 veterans. It is the highest number of veterans per county in Florida.

Mr. Canty Home Preservation Project with Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues and Operation Code Vets in June 2018

That accounts for almost 10% of the county population; where 10% of the county’s homeless population are also veterans.

I also learned that veterans aged 55 or older have surprisingly high housing cost burdens, and that many older veterans require modifications due to disabilities or aging in place. As a result, close to 30% of veterans live in inadequate and unaffordable housing, with as many paying over 50% of their income to rent.

These statistics show the incredible need to serve the veterans in our community, and the need to increase our outreach to better serve our most vulnerable vets.

The Mission Continues and Wounded Warrior Project project for Habitat for Humanity on the Nov 11th Veterans Day Build in 2017

Since the launch of the Veterans Initiative, we have tremendously increased our community outreach and with that the demand for services. I am now the Veterans Build Outreach Coordinator. What was at first a volunteer endeavor, a passion project, has turned into a career.

I have been able to see first-hand how something that may seem so insignificant to one person, can improve the quality of life for another.

Where We Are Today

This year, we will commemorate Veterans Day by serving seven veteran families in seven days through the Home Preservation Program where we will provide minor exterior home repairs, painting, and landscaping with the end goal of raising the roof of a new home for a veteran family.

We are working to continue to build partnerships with other volunteer veteran organizations like The Mission Continues, Wounded Warrior Project, and Team Rubicon. The sense of brotherhood/sisterhood when we have veterans helping veterans is priceless for the veteran families and our veteran volunteers.

Raising the Roof on MLK’s National Day of Service with The Mission Continues in January 2018

We are also building partnerships with other veteran-driven nonprofits like Operation Code Vets to maximize the use of our resources and provide the best possible service to our vets.

In the end, these partnerships serve to bring positive role models to our communities, provide selfless service, and let our neighbors know that they are important and that we support them.