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Formerly homeless Air Force veteran vows to 'leave no one behind'

MISSION SOLANO/FACEBOOK

By LISA P. WHITE | East Bay Times | Published: December 30, 2017

BERKELEY, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Following a stint in the Air Force, Mark Mendoza worked as an undercover police officer rooting illegal drugs out of Northern California high schools and later as a federal agent trying to stop the illegal flow of narcotics and people over the southern border.

Mendoza led an orderly, disciplined life rooted in duty and service until 2008, when, in the span of two months, he had a heart attack and his 17-year-old daughter died in a tragic accident, sending him into an emotional tailspin.

Consumed by grief and despair, Mendoza drifted, staying sporadically with family.

"I wanted to fade into the ether and just disappear and die," he said. "I didn't see any purpose for me anymore."

Eventually, he sought refuge at Mission Solano, a Fairfield nonprofit that provides transitional housing, addiction counseling and services to homeless veterans and others in need.

During his stay, Mendoza began working for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project's Veterans Peer Outreach and Internship Program, which pays homeless veterans a stipend to help other homeless vets get off the streets.

"When my daughter died and I had the heart attack, I lost perspective," said Mendoza, 55. "It was a kick into reality when I saw these vets that needed help."

The Rev. M.A. Sempari, an interfaith chaplain who founded the outreach program in 2014, was inspired by the military credo of leaving no one behind. She wants to show veterans that the country has not forgotten or abandoned them; that even if the war they fought was unpopular or has lost public support, many Americans still appreciate their service.

Carrying bottled water, granola bars, clean socks and toiletries, twice per week the outreach teams walk the streets, visit encampments, explore parks and drop by places serving free meals in Contra Costa and Solano counties looking for homeless veterans. They try to connect those they meet with services, a case manager and a housing specialist.

The outreach program benefits the interns, who develop valuable job skills and earn a paycheck, and wary homeless veterans who may be more willing to accept help from peers, according to Terrie Light, executive director of the Berkeley nonprofit organization.

"It's not just work, but meaningful work," Light said.

Founded in 1970, Berkeley Food & Housing Project provides housing, food and support services to the chronically homeless, families and people with mental illness in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties. In 2010, the nonprofit began the Support Services for Veteran Families Program, which includes the outreach team.

The organization has received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves needy residents in the East Bay. The grant is administered by the Contra Costa Crisis Center, and donations support programs of more than 40 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

Last year, Berkeley Food & Housing Project used its Share the Spirit grant to provide two free holiday meals for about 500 people.

Mendoza described himself as a lost soul when he joined the outreach program and acknowledged that he was still working through his grief and struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"What really helped me work through this was Berkeley Food and Housing," he said. "Them taking a chance on me and then asking me to come back."

Sempari witnessed Mendoza change.

"He had a lot of personal things going on, and I think as he could talk about some of those and put energy into caring for others while he was being cared for kind of re-lit a fire of hope for him," Sempari said.

"I love the man, he's just a great person. To see him freed of some of the things that were haunting him or holding him back ... he remembered that you can only care for someone to the ability that you are caring for yourself."

Today, Mendoza has his own place and a job working with developmentally disabled adults. But he still tries to help homeless veterans, even if all he can offer is a pair of shoes or a hot meal.

"I'm not leaving any veteran behind. That's what I learned working with Berkeley Food and Housing," said Mendoza, who still goes to weekly counseling sessions to help him cope with PTSD.

"There are ways that you can get help; it doesn't have to be like this."

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(c)2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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