Growing up, Leah Schumacher didn’t really think about what was going on in the world. She didn’t have to. She was just a normal American kid.
“I didn’t really have much depth to me,” she said. “As I was ending college, I had no plan for the future. I hadn’t done any internships. I wasn’t really motivated to do anything.”
Then, Sept. 11 happened.
“I remember President Bush giving a State of the Union address and talking about being in the military, what that stood for and fighting for this country,” she said. “It just hit me like a lightning bolt: ‘That’s what I need to do, I need to join the military.’”
Leah comes from a long line of servicemen, but she was the first female in her family to decide to serve. Her first call was to her father – a veteran of Vietnam, a Green Beret with the U.S. Army Special Forces, and the most “hard-core Army dude you can think of.”
“I remember calling my father at work and I said, ‘Daddy I need to join the Army. What do you think?’” she recalled. “He said, “That would be the best decision you could ever make.’ He had never mentioned it to me before then.”
Soon after enlisting, Leah found herself on the front lines, serving in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 at the very beginning of the war.
“First, I called sobbing from boot camp. Then, I called sobbing when I got to Germany and learned my unit was already in Iraq. I thought, ‘I’m going to go to war and die.’ My dad said, ‘The Lord is going to take care of you and protect you. He took care of me.’"
God did take care of her, all the while preparing her for a new challenge when she returned home.
“I believe that God measures our path and sets it out before us,” she said. “I can look back and see that that is what started me on this journey to become a social worker.”
After returning home, Leah witnessed the challenges that faced other young veterans. She had friends suffering from PTSD and friends who were incarcerated due to drug use or crimes they had committed.
In our community, many of these issues lead to the problem Leah is now on the frontlines battling: veteran homelessness. Leah serves as the coordinator for the veterans program at the Center of Hope, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and The Salvation Army. The program provides temporary residential housing and supportive services to homeless veterans and their families, while partnering with organizations such as Charlotte Bridge Home to help veterans receive the resources and support they deserve to live independently and fully.
“The most rewarding thing is that I get to spend time with my brothers and sisters in arms because I know that every single one of them, regardless of when they served or where they served or how long they served, made that vow and commitment to potentially die for our country,” she says. “And, that’s what is so poignant for me. I can relate to them and I know that I can relate to them in a manner that no one else can unless they’ve been in our shoes.”
“That’s why I have this picture up here,” she added, pointing to a framed photo of her father in fatigues prominently behind her desk. “I want them to not think I’m just someone here to collect a paycheck.”
Little by little, the program is making an impact. In October alone, five veterans and their families moved out of the shelter. The program houses nine veterans at a time.
On Veterans Day in 2014, officials launched a campaign to end veteran homelessness and house the more than 200 documented homeless veterans in Mecklenburg County. Today, two years later, it is believed the number of homeless veterans is less than 40.
Meanwhile, this new battle is one Leah is excited to face. Just like her days in the Army, she has a job to do, and she wakes up every day drawing inspiration from her experience, her father’s experience, and the experiences of the brothers and sisters she’s serving.