The students in Kevin Benitez’s classroom at Loyola Marymount University span five decades, bringing with them varied work and life experiences. But there are at least two traits that bind them: military service, and a desire to use what they’ve learned in life to help other veterans.
These commonalities attracted the students to Vet2Peer, a grant-funded program that awards full scholarships to vets seeking to improve their job prospects after dealing with challenges such as physical and mental health issues, employment struggles, incarceration and more. Graduates of the 80-hour course earn a Peer Specialist for Veterans certificate, and prepare for roles in veteran-serving organizations, government agencies, community health clinics, recovery centers, and housing and homeless service providers.
“As veterans, we’re resilient. We don’t want to talk about this stuff,” Benitez told his students while explaining ways to encourage their future clients to open up. “You have to be able to empathize…. to put yourself in their shoes.”
In June, the state Department of Health Care Access and Information awarded Vet2Peer a $500,000 grant over two years that will fund 150 scholarships, on top of the 154 that have been awarded since the program began at LMU in 2019. Vet2Peer is a partnership between LMU Extension, which offers programs for adult learners, and U.S.VETS, a nonprofit providing services to homeless and at-risk veterans.
“Adjusting to civilian life after the military can be difficult. Vet2Peer allows participants to draw from their personal struggles and recovery while acquiring the knowledge, resources, and tools necessary to help their brothers and sisters,” said Diana Luna, interim director of Continuing Education at LMU.
David Sapp, LMU’s vice provost for academic affairs and dean of graduate education, added: “These students deserve appreciation every day — and especially on Veteran’s Day — for their sacrifices and continued service to the community. They are deeply respected members of our LMU community.”
The current cohort began meeting on Saturdays in September and will finish classes in January.
Vet2Peer led to new opportunities for 58-year-old Kenneth Berry, who served for four years in the Marine Corps. Later, he said, he found himself on a path to gangs, drugs, incarceration, depression and homelessness. Berry applied to Vet2Peer at the recommendation of his wife, a fellow graduate whom he met while living in transitional housing at the V.A. campus in West Los Angeles.
Given his past struggles, Berry wanted to become certified as a peer specialist and help other vets, he said. Since completing the program, Berry said he’s secured work as a case manager with a nonprofit organization that works with individuals experiencing homelessness.
“It was the certificate that opened the doors that made me marketable and more attractive to employers,” Berry said.
“The goal is to help people. I think that is the Divine Providence for me. I have this history, and the system helped me. And I just want to show people that the system works if you allow it to. No matter how far down you’ve been and where you’re at right now, there’s always hope. You can always turn things around.”