Five Questions for Kyle Palmstrom

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We recently sat down with Kyle Palmstrom, a VOA Veterans Case Manager (pictured above). Volunteers of America, MA is currently managing two US Department of Labor grant funded programs – the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program (HVRP) and within the HVRP, the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program, to expedite the reintegration of incarcerated or recently incarcerated veterans into the labor force. Earlier this month Kyle was part of the Volunteers of America Esperanza Mission Team in Puerto Rico.  Working in conjunction with the First Lady of Puerto Rico’s office, the VOA Esperanza Mission Team visited and assisted seniors in public and assisted living.

We’re grateful to Kyle for his service – and sharing some of his experiences with us!

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Your employment with Volunteers of America, Massachusetts began in September while coinciding with the horrific hurricane events – did you ever imagine you would find yourself in San Juan the following month?

That’s right. I interviewed during the summer and began right after Labor Day, around the time when Hurricane’s Jose and Irma hit and right before Hurricane Maria.     

I had just started working here when I was told VOA was organizing teams of volunteers to help in Puerto Rico. I was asked if I’d be willing to join. I have a background that might be useful. I’m pretty flexible. I immediately said yes. I was ready to go the next day if need be. In the end I had one week to prepare. It all was pulled together and I was excited to be part of it.

On October 29th I flew into San Juan. It was a total culture shock as there was very little English spoken. I got a ride to where I was meeting my team at the hotel and needed to send pictures along the way to identify landmarks since I couldn’t communicate to the driver in English.

I was part of a ten person team that included VOA colleagues from Ohio, Colorado and Minnesota affiliates. I represented Massachusetts. We really came together as a team. Everyone was so nice and we were ready to work and accomplish our objectives.

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You’re a veteran?

I am a US Marine Corp veteran. I served from 2008-2012, including two years in Okinawa and a year in Afghanistan. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school and also, as a child who watched 9/11 happen, when I became of age to have an opportunity to serve my country, the opportunity was important. I was part of the troop surge in Afghanistan. I was trained as a Heavy Equipment Operator. The Marine Corp definitely solved any confusion about direction I may have had in high school!

Did those experiences help you in Puerto Rico?

Well, I just focused on how I could make myself most useful. In Afghanistan we built roads were there weren’t any. A paved road was a rare sight. In Puerto Rico, the roads and highways were damaged. There was little power so no road lights, lots of obstacles in the road. So perhaps my military background prepared me as I was comfortable driving. Our focus was to assess the needs of elderly populations. I drove 4-5 other volunteers around to housing projects to identify seniors, assess their situation, and help them the best we could. Sometimes it would mean driving out to get medical supplies. We delivered donations. The people were appreciative. They understood we were there to help. I saw the damage not only to the land – entire forests devastated with tree loss and houses without roofs – but also in the people. These were survivors. They had short-term PTSD. So many people approached me just wanting to talk. They wanted to tell me their story and how they survived the storm.

And now you’re back to work?

Post- Puerto Rico, I have settled into my role as a Veteran Case Manager working out of the Plymouth County Correctional Facility. We received a grant to support veterans while they are incarcerated and up to eighteen months post-incarceration. I provide case management support and focus on our clients housing and employment situation and their successful transition back into the community. I am working with almost sixty inmates. We talk about our stories and the paths we took. I see a lot of guys in jail because of substance use -so much substance use. Once they stop acting like things are good we can talk about real next steps. I say ‘look, you’re here. You’re in jail for a reason. Now let’s talk about change’.

Lasting memory of Puerto Rico?

Se Lavanta Puerto Rico! Puerto Rico will rise! This is what the people would say. What people in the states may have missed in the news is how people in Puerto Rico came together to help each other. I saw firsthand people coming together to help each other – water, food, shelter – in San Juan and towards the small towns. They’re taking care of each other. Se Lavanta Puerto Rico. It felt very much like the idea of Boston Strong. They’re very optimistic people.

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