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Community support bolsters Veterans Resource Center


Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Foothill College student Charles Viajar, a U.S. Navy veteran, takes advantage of the school’s Veterans Resource Center in pursuit of training as a respiratory therapist.

The Veterans Resource Center at the heart of Foothill College’s Los Altos Hills campus feels like a low-key clubhouse, with noodle soup packets, a worn couch and a steady flow of students coming to and from classes.

On a recent Tuesday, Wayne Barton passed through – he’s in his third quarter, studying enterprise networking and other IT specialties. Barton had cut college short to return to work after leaving the military. But now, between jobs, he’s taking advantage of a Veterans Administration program that offers retraining for vets.

Brian Go stopped by, too – until recently a health inspector in the Army, he’s now studying to be a veterinary technician. He’s left the world of overseeing slaughterhouses to tend to animals.

Charles Viajar, a firefighter in the Navy, hadn’t known what he wanted to do when he left the service in January. As of this week, he was working his way through a chemistry textbook at the center’s corner desk.

Viajar ultimately concluded that after watching his grandfather die of lung cancer, he’d like to do something that helps people breathe.

Viajar learned about chemical and biological warfare over his four deployments, but he returned to the civilian world unused to the freedom – and attendant chaos – of solo adult life. As a veteran, he has access to funding for his training as a respiratory therapist, but navigating the paperwork and bureaucracy that stands between a veteran and his or her benefits requires help.

That’s where the Veterans Resource Center comes in.

“As soon as I came in, Carmela was very helpful,” Viajar said of Carmela Xuereb, the director at the heart of the center. “Carmela helps you get your benefits to work, so you can actually use them.”

Not only does the Veterans Resource Center serve as a comfortable place for vets to find each other and pool their limited resources, it is also an organizing force within the college, collaborating with other departments to help them transition to academic life.

Donations from sources such as the Town Crier Holiday Fund help supply equipment like computers and printer paper, and this year the center has been fundraising to offset the cost of textbooks. This fall, financial concerns became particularly pronounced during the government shutdown.

“We went through a hard time during the furlough – the guys got pretty nervous,” Xuereb said. “They depend on their VA benefits to pay rent, buy books, even buy food.”

She serves as a protective den mother to the 250 veterans studying at Foothill, who often find their way to her via word of mouth. They can print papers in the office, pick up extra Scantrons for an upcoming test or just grab a subsidized snack.

“All those little five cents here, 10 cents there, it adds up for them,” Xuereb said. “It’s the little things.”

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