"The wake-up call hit."

Chasing Truth

College. Four years of young adults indulging in mistakes, learning and discovery. Nicole couldn’t afford college, so she joined the Army.

In the Army, Nicole couldn’t make mistakes. Instead, she learned more truths about the world than she was ready for, forcing her to grow in new ways.

“I spent my 21st birthday there,” Nicole shares. “I saw a lot of things that made me grow up and realize what the world was about—not just where I’m from—and how people in other countries don’t even have basic rights.”

Two years after Nicole joined the Army, she was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom, a war that went on to take the lives of tens of thousands of people. Nicole summarizes the experience with one word: traumatic. While serving, Nicole earned her associate degree in human resources. After returning to the States, Nicole began living a life she didn’t want.

While she readjusted to civilian life and reacquainted herself with her family and friends, Nicole also spent many nights chasing the college experience she never had, trying to figure out who she was. She felt like she was reverting “to being a high schooler again,” even with her emotions.

“I lived for the day,” Nicole says. “I didn’t think about tomorrow because I didn’t understand that there was a tomorrow; I only saw today and that I was still alive.”

When Nicole became pregnant with her first son, everything she’d spent two years running away from finally caught up to her.

“The wake-up call hit,” she says.

She took a job in human resources for the Wounded Warriors Project and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., but she could feel herself returning to the dark places she’d experienced overseas.

“It was hard for me because those wounded warriors happened to be some of my friends,” Nicole shares. “They were the people I was in the Army with.”

Something started changing within Nicole. Her family noticed, too. She was arguing more with her sister, and her mother was scared to be around her. Nicole felt like no one understood what she was going through, which led to a mental breakdown.

“My whole life fell apart,” Nicole says.

Knowing what was best for her mental health at the time, Nicole left her job. She couldn’t afford her own place, and her family was afraid of taking her in, so she and her son stayed at a hotel for two months. Her only saving grace during this time was her son.

“It’s almost like a hole,” Nicole shares. “When you don’t have anyone to pull you out of it, you just keep falling and falling and falling.”

Nicole needed help. She turned to the V.A. There, she started speaking to a counselor and began finding herself the right way. She moved into her first rental home, and she also began arts therapy, which led to finding her passion for acting. Although things were getting better, Nicole still had worries. This time, in the form of a growing electric bill.

“I knew the day and time would come when… I’d come home, and my power would be off,” Nicole says.

Her social worker through the V.A. heard about the Elks’ Emergency Assistance Fund, a program that allows veterans to apply for up to $2,500 of assistance. She told Nicole, “If there’s anybody I know who’s really trying, who just needs a little help, it’s you,” and encouraged her to apply.

“You guys responded quickly and did what you said you were going to do,” Nicole says. “That’s just the integrity of your organization.”

The emergency assistance paid Nicole's bill, and she wants others to know that the fund is serving its purpose in serving veterans.

“I’m a real person testifying that, in my time of need, the Elks said they would help and that is what they did,” Nicole says.

That help allowed Nicole to continue her climb. She’s studying at a dramatic arts school and hopes to start working in a creative role soon. She’s raising her son, who’s now 10 years old, and teaching him how to be a strong person, just like his mom.

“I want my son to watch me as an example to understand that, even if he saw me down before, he sees me up now,” Nicole says. “We can continue to try harder and do better.”

She also wants to serve as an advocate for veterans in her community, especially regarding mental health.

“People didn’t realize the pain I was experiencing inside,” Nicole shares. “I lost myself. And people don’t realize how hard it is to be in this world when you don’t know who you are.”

It wasn’t easy, but Nicole feels like she’s finally where she should be. There might not be a right way, but Nicole says she’s finding the best way to live her life.

“I feel like I’m adulting now,” Nicole says. “I’m finally an adult.”

Read more stories from the Be the Spark series about other veterans who've received assistance through the Emergency Assistance Fund here.

Since July 2015, the Elks National Foundation has contributed $4 million to help end veteran homelessness. The money funds the Elks National Veterans Service Commission's Welcome Home initiative, which includes an Emergency Assistance Fund for veterans in eight metropolitan areas targeted by the V.A. for increased focus by the Elks: Chicago, D.C., Loma Linda, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade, New York, San Diego, and Seattle. To date, the Elks have helped more than 1,350 veterans exit or avoid homelessness through emergency assistance. Learn more at enf.elks.org/WelcomeHome.

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