Pittsburgh class builds leadership potential in veterans

By BRETT SHOLTIS | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: April 28, 2014

PITTSBURGH — One local group is asking not what it can do to help veterans, but rather what veterans can do to help the community.

The group, Leadership Pittsburgh Inc., is a nonprofit that typically offers courses for business people. Its alumni include CEOs, company presidents and other professionals. Tuition is almost $5,000, and admission is not guaranteed.

The new program, called Community Leadership Course for Veterans, departs from that format, charging no tuition and limiting enrollment to post-9/11 veterans who have shown community involvement and leadership potential. Students must commit to one training session per week for six months. The curriculum includes partnerships with WESA-Radio, WQED-TV, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.

"I think we'll be stronger as a community if we start looking at veterans as assets ... rather than liabilities," said Megan Andros, a program officer with the Heinz Endowments, the group that provided most of the funding for the pilot program.

Ms. Andros, a former Army captain who served in Iraq, did not want to underestimate the many challenges veterans face when they return to civilian life. But she believes the course will help some veterans find new missions after they return home.

"Just because you leave the military doesn't mean that desire to serve goes away," Ms. Andros said.

She said she went from leading 100 soldiers in Iraq to being a shipping and receiving manager at Target, and it took a while for her to find a new purpose outside of the military.

Aradhna Oliphant, the president and CEO of Pittsburgh Leadership, said she was excited to take on a project for veterans.

"They are such a resource because they get so much training from the military, and because they're asked to give so much in the most dire of circumstances," she said.

Ms. Oliphant said her group developed the course after having conversations with Ms. Andros and other veterans. She concluded most veterans want to be part of a group united by a common purpose.

Thomas Stokes, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who served in Afghanistan, took part in those initial conversations.

"I look at this course as a way to take what's positive in the military and enhance it," said Mr. Stokes, who also runs a private behavioral health practice for military families. "We're training them to take the kind of leadership and the kinds of things that are taught in the military and translate them to the civilian world."

Susanne Kokoska is one of the veterans accepted for the training course. Ms. Kokoska served in the Navy and was stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during the opening months of the Iraq war.

Ms. Kokoska said that, after serving out her contract, she left the military to start a family. But her marriage ended in divorce, and she returned to the Pittsburgh area.

She got a bachelor's degree, a master's degree and a job as a software engineer, but she wanted to be active in the veterans' community. She became a volunteer with Team Red White and Blue, a veterans group centered around physical and social activities.

Ms. Kokoska hopes the leadership course will help her to serve the community and other veterans.

"Regardless of whether or not you've ever met them, you share a special bond with other people who served," she said.


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