Des Plaines program helps struggling veterans find a new career
Mudassir "Moon" Syed Hussaini of Palatine served five years as an aircraft mechanic in the Marine Corps before an injury forced him back into civilian life.
The transition was difficult; he lacked focus in searching for a job, let alone a new career, he said.
Then he found the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry Veterans Back to Work Boot Camp, now in its second year.
Being accepted into the 11-week program changed his life.
"It centered me," he said Thursday night at a graduation ceremony for 19 veterans, two of them women. "I learned how to get through an interview and how to transfer my skills. I became work-centered and focused."
Stories like Hussaini's permeated the atmosphere at the event, which drew nearly 100 people, including veterans, Des Plaines city leaders and business partners, as well as some of last year's boot camp graduates.
They got the chance to meet Margaret Bennett of Beach Park. She served eight years of active duty in the Army as a medic, rising to the rank of sergeant. While she had envisioned a career in the medical field as a civilian, she was uncertain.
"I didn't know how my skills would transfer," said Bennett. "This program helped me identify my strengths."
Mentors in the program helped Bennett realize that as an officer she had conducted training sessions for other medics and organized procedures for new equipment. She now hopes to land a job in training and compliance, or possibly in organizational management.
The graduation ceremony took place at Des Plaines American Legion Post 36, which the boot camp participants had recently refurbished with new paint. But the course itself took place at the chamber offices and featured presentations by different business mentors each week.
One of the first mentors was Marne Deithorn, human resources director at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines and a former Marine. The casino is a major sponsor of the boot camp and Deithorn received a huge response from the graduates when she addressed them Thursday night.
"One of the goals of this course was to remind you of all the intangible skills that you as veterans have," Deithorn said, pointing to such attributes as decisiveness, integrity, dedication, loyalty and timeliness. "These skills are important, and companies value them."
One of those employers on hand was Cindy Veremis, field human resources director with Sky Chefs in Des Plaines, and the incoming president of the Des Plaines Chamber.
"We've already employed two of last year's graduates," Veremis said. "We're always looking for great leaders and these veterans have great leadership skills."
That message fit with the goal of one of this year's class members, Quentin Smith of Plainfield. He served 20 years as a combat medic in the Army before returning to civilian life and earning his master's degree in social work. He entered the boot camp looking to gain a leadership position, possibly working in policy or program management.
"The program helped me learn how to present myself and talk to hiring managers," Smith said. "I learned how to network and just have more confidence."
Deithorn agreed, telling graduates that they had grown immensely, both in their skill set and in camaraderie with one another.
"Your confidence levels have grown immensely," Deithorn said, "and your ability to share yourself and your stories with prospective employers."
The graduation ceremony not only affirmed what they had accomplished in boot camp, it helped them on the next steps, with each receiving a career-focused package valued at $8,000, including a new laptop computer.