By Zach Brooke
Near the lowest point of Kevin Evans’ life, when he was a homeless military veteran without direction, he got the lift that would make him the man he is today.
A Veterans Affairs staffer complimented Evans’ untapped capacities for leadership, perseverance and empathy. “He told me,” Evans recalls, “‘You would be a great success in social service, working with people, if you went back and got your education.’”
That put Evans on a path toward his 2011 master’s degree in social work from UWM. He couldn’t have earned it without assistance from UWM’s Veterans Upward Bound program. Since then, UWM has opened its Military and Veterans Resource Center, or MAVRC. Both initiatives offer a broad range of services for veterans.
Now, Evans uses his UWM degree to help fellow veterans stuck in ruts like those he escaped. He works for the nonprofit Center for Veterans Issues, which assists vets through a variety of programs, including counseling, housing services and job skills. In October, the UWM Alumni Association honored him with its Community Service Award.
UWM is one of the Midwest’s leading educators of veterans, with more than 1,000 enrolled annually. Its commitment to military personnel will be on full display when it hosts the fourth-annual Military and Veterans Ball. Open to all veterans, military members and community supporters, it’s set for Friday, Nov. 3, at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center. Tickets may be purchased at vetball.eventbrite.com.
Evans was discharged from the Army in 1986 after a 10-year hitch. Unable to adjust to civilian life back in Milwaukee, he struggled with substance abuse. He became estranged from his family, eventually drifting into homelessness on and off for much of a decade.
“Life wasn’t going too good,” recalls Evans, now 58 years old.
After that pivotal visit to the VA, and with encouragement from his mother, the big step came in 1997. Evans reached out to VETS Place Central, a transitional housing service run by the Center for Veterans Issues that provides temporary shelter to displaced servicemen and women.
For Evans, taking that step wasn’t easy. “It’s a pride thing.” he says. “I had to go out to VPC and humble myself, and say, ‘Hey, I need you guys to help.’”
He didn’t know then that he’d someday become one of the helpers. With CVI’s help, he enrolled in Veterans Upward Bound, a federally funded educational program that teaches core learning skills in preparation for college.
“We started doing the reading, writing and arithmetic,” he says. “Three areas that a lot of veterans are very slow in now.”
Soon, he began to collect diplomas. A few years after completing a bachelor’s in criminal justice, Evans learned of UWM’s master’s program in social work. It was the gateway to a job where Evans could help others.
“I wanted to change my whole life story,” he says. “I felt I was a menace to society and I wanted to give back.”
He enrolled at UWM, only to struggle with the advanced coursework, partly because, he later discovered, he had a learning disability. But UWM has a slew of resources designed to help veterans.
MAVRC, colloquially called “maverick,” launched at UWM in late 2012 and is a one-stop shop for veterans seeking assistance. It guides them through campus life, and connects them and their spouses to employment resources.
“We try to help them every step of the way in every place they might need it,” says Jayne Holland, interim director of MAVRC. On Friday, Nov. 10, MAVRC will host an open house to celebrate its five-year anniversary.
Although Evans was at UWM prior to MAVRC’s inception, Upward Bound introduced him to resources like the UWM Writing Center and encouraged him to speak to his professors about his learning disability. The adjustments allowed him to thrive.
His master’s degree netted a job at CVI, the same agency that helped him two decades ago. As an outreach specialist, he spends much of his time offering help to homeless vets.
“It makes me feel good when I go home at night,” Evans says, “knowing that I touched somebody else’s life.”