SHERIDAN — Greg Blakely is feeling like a success. A Navy veteran, Blakely has experienced tough times, really tough times, since service. But with grit and perseverance — and help — Blakely feels that his life is now in a good place.
“I’ve seen a big growth in him,” Gwen Burgess said. “I’ve seen him go from down here to way up.”
Burgess works with veterans such as Blakely in the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. VASH works to build effective community partnerships to help veterans experiencing chronic homelessness. Blakely was one of those veterans.
Blakely left home at 17 and went to New York City where he enlisted.
“I wanted to be a photographer’s mate but I was told the program was closed so instead I was a boatswain’s mate,” he said.
After service, Blakely kicked around California before heading back to New York City by Greyhound bus. Blakely took photographs with friends and paid for a photography class, then began working in retail with J.W. Mays and Saks Fifth Avenue. Later he worked at a hotel.
“I enjoy working with people,” Blakely said.
Blakely left New York City for Atlanta, Georgia. He worked temporary jobs in American Express customer service and washing cars for an automobile dealer. He “kicked around” before moving to Virginia.
Blakely’s life became bumpy. He lived with his mother-in-law, then with a sister in Denver. He worked temp jobs and drove buses. He bunked in a shelter from time-to-time.
“I met a girl, hooked up, then got in trouble,” Blakely said.
Life went into a downward spiral for Blakely, who said he was in a cycle of prison and suicide attempts. He landed one night in Denver General Hospital.
“They discharged me in the middle of the night,” he said. He took a bus back to the Denver Veterans Affairs center. As a veteran, he was receiving psychiatric counseling through the VA.
“I was seeing a psychiatrist once a month for about an hour,” Blakely said.
The staff recommended that Blakely come to the psychiatric hospital at the Sheridan VA.
“It was Sept. 19, 2009,” Blakely said. “They flew me here.”
Blakely spent eight months in the VA psychiatric ward. The head of the department stepped in and assigned him a psychiatrist. Blakely was now in sessions twice a week.
“I needed to talk things out and learn to forgive people who done me wrong,” Blakely said.
Blakely landed a job through the VA Compensated Work Therapy program. During his stay, a VA staff person told Blakely about the VASH program. Blakely was in. He moved in with a friend and began saving money for a down payment and first month’s rent. His roommate moved to Buffalo and Blakely found a place he could call his own.
Through the VASH program, Blakely met Burgess. Burgess is on staff at the Sheridan Senior Center. The center partners with the VA to support veterans with programs such as VASH.
“She (Burgess) didn’t like the place I was going to go to and found another place for me,” Blakely said. “It’s perfect, close to my hang out spots.”
It has now been six years.
Blakely attends mandatory monthly VASH meetings with VA coordinators Jennifer Fairbank and Curt Merriam, Burgess, and with other veterans in the program. The meetings give veterans in the VASH program an opportunity to check in on their progress.
“Sometime we go fishing,” Blakely said.
Burgess said she expects Blakely will graduate from VASH. According to Burgess, veterans graduate when the program coordinators think they are ready to stand on their own.
Today, Blakely uses his retail experience and enjoyment working with people at the Senior Center’s Green Boomerang Thrift Shop. He works at the store four days a week through a paid work program.
“I’d like to think that I’m a success,” Blakely said.
By Lois Bell
Sheridan Senior Center