Darah Gerou, Vocational Rehabilitation CounselorPosted By PVA Admin on May 3, 2023
Darah Gerou has dedicated her professional career advocating for people with disabilities and Veterans. Her passion for disability advocacy, as well the fact that she was raised by not one but two Marine Corps Veterans, gave her important skills she brought to her position as the Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for PVA’s Veteran Career Program.
Hi Darah, how are you doing today?
I’m good. How are you?
I’m doing great! So let’s just jump into things, shall we? Would you mind starting off by introducing yourself and what you do at PVA, as well as some of the things you’re responsible for day-to-day?
I am the newest counselor for the Veterans Career Program. I am based on the West Coast, so I serve all Veterans, caregivers and their support networks. I do anything from connecting transitioning members of the service to resources within the community to helping them find jobs, resume assistance, you name it, jack of all trades. One thing that is really unique about this program is that we meet Veterans where they’re at, so whatever they need, whether that be finding a volunteer opportunity, an educational opportunity or making sure that a job is the right fit for them. One of the things that’s unique about the program is that once you’re a client, you’re a client for life, and that’s something I really enjoy.
That’s awesome! Obviously, this is a really specific vocation. What are some of the things in your background that led you to working as a vocational counselor?
Oh my goodness, how long is this interview? That’s a very I identify myself as a person with a disability. What I found is there’s a disconnect from what services are available to them and what people know. To be honest, growing up, I wanted to be the next James Herriot. I wanted to be a zoologist.
People always had a misconception about what I could do based on what they saw and perceived, and who I actually was.
VO: Darah has always been determined not to let anything get in the way of what she wants to do. However, when she was in college, she soon discovered that some of her biggest obstacles would come not necessarily from having a disability, but from her struggles getting the resources she needed, as well as the assumptions others made about her based off of her disability. These challenges inspired her to make it her life’s work to connect others with disabilities to the resources they need to thrive.
Long story short, in college, I had a lot of challenges and I didn’t want anyone to have to go through what I did. It just so happens that I was part of a research group that was trying to identify the gaps of what we knew about services and what was available. From that, somebody named Susan Daniels gave me an opportunity. She was creating an organization- it is now called Policy Works, but back then, it was called Daniels and Associates. What they did was connect college-aged students to resources within their community. In my time there, I helped develop their youth program called Access to Independence in San Diego. I worked with people aged 14-24 and connected them with services in their communities, helping them with driving and whatever they needed to be self-sufficient, getting them jobs, you name it. So, to answer your question, I wanted to give back and pay it forward, because if it wasn’t for the people who helped me in my past, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
It definitely sounds like you’ve done a lot of really impressive things, and that you’re a really awesome fit for this position. I feel like your perspective as someone with a disability helps you connect to our clients in a way that maybe some of the other counselors aren’t. Would you mind speaking a little bit to that?
So this is quite funny actually. I come from a big service family. My parents were both in the Marine Corps. They met in Iwakuni, and that’s something they have in common. So when I was growing up, I had a very tough upbringing. They said I could do anything except join the military. Their motto was “adapt, improvise, overcome” and I think I embody that. When I meet with clients, it’s all about rapport and building that rapport and understanding the client’s perspective. A lot of our clients have newly acquired disabilities, and so they’re not used to disability and what that means. I can understand that, because growing up, I did not understand what disability was in the social context. I knew my body worked differently, and I knew that I had to do things to adapt to a new situation. But in terms of disability literally meaning “not able”, I had no idea what that meant until somebody actually told me. Even to this day, I sometimes forget I have a disability and am a wheelchair user until a situation reminds me, so to answer your question, I want the client to share their experience and I want to remind them that disability is just a shared experience. They’re still who they were when they served in the military. They just have to do things differently. They’re still Joe. They’re still Allen. They’re still Suzie. They just have to do what they did in the military: adapt, improvise and look at things in a new way.
VO: As Veterans or those from military backgrounds, clients to the Veterans Career Program must often re-adjust to civilian life. This is something that looks different for every client. Additionally, clients with disabilities must also learn how to adjust to life with their new disability. Darah makes sure that she meets every client where they’re at.
One thing I’ve learned as a rehabilitation counselor is that everyone has a different experience. So in order to better serve clients, when I first meet a client, I really try to understand their perspective and not only the job aspect of it, but what’s going on in their life? Are they a mother? Are they the sole provider of their families? Are they trying to go to school and what for? What led them to that decision? It’s about really understanding their mindset, so I can support them long-term.
It’s definitely important to understand where each and every person is at in their journey, because everyone has a different experience. Obviously the one thing they have in common is a military background, but everyone is in a different place in life.
Exactly, and to answer your question, what brought me to PVA, I saw that this was a military organization, I thought, “this is my way of giving back”. I always say if I can help one person, I’ve done my job. But this organization is really unique in that, not only would it allow me to use my skills, but it would allow me to be part of a military community in a way I haven’t before.
It definitely sounds like being raised by military parents affected the way you see life and life’s challenges, and that’s a really amazing way to connect with your clients, especially the Marine Corps Veterans.
There were no excuses growing up! [laughs]
Yeah, I’m sure, in the Marine Corps, they don’t mess around. You mentioned both your parents are Marine Corps Veterans?
Yes, my dad was a gunnery sergeant, and my mom did avionics.
Oh wow, were they serving at the same time?
Very cool, it’s definitely cool that you have both parents who are Veterans. I feel like a lot of people have a parent who is a Veteran, but having both is double the military influence.
Well that and my family… I come from a big military family in and of itself.
Are they all in the Marine Corps?
No, all branches.
All branches, okay. So I imagine there was a lot of family rivalry with all the branches?
Of course. [laughs]
Do you have a favorite branch or are you not allowed to say that?
You know, I feel like every branch gives back in their own way, and, you know, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all the branches.
Very diplomatic answer, I like that. Obviously, the clients coming to see you, having been in the military or at least military-adjacent, have had obstacles that they’ve learned to overcome through their military training or just being influenced by people in the military in the case of caregivers and military dependents. Would you mind speaking a little bit more about the obstacles your clients face when they come into the program and how you address those challenges?
Speaking for myself, I can’t speak for my colleagues, a lot of my clients come in just looking for not only a way to make an income, but baseline supports. They are transitioning or have acquired their disability and are looking for a place to start. A lot of my Veterans need help with basic food and shelter. They’re also trying to better familiarize themselves with this new COVID workforce, and learn computer skills and how that translates. A lot of the Veterans I deal with have had very hands-on, in person jobs and that doesn’t really translate well in some instances given where we are with COVID-19, so trying to navigate that, and then in some cases, also trying to navigate their disabilities.
I’m curious, would you say that COVID has been helpful in getting them accommodations or would you say it’s been detrimental generally?
As you know, PVA works with transitioning Veterans and their families and support networks regardless of their disability. But for those that have a disability, I find that the remote workforce has been beneficial because transportation is no longer an issue, getting to and from work. People are more able to have flexible work schedules for example. Some of the issues that we were facing in the workforce prior to COVID-19 are easier to navigate, because employers are more apt to allow someone to work from home and see productivity raise. There’s this misconception about people with disabilities that they’re going to be less productive in the workforce, and accommodations are going to cost more. But to be honest, most accommodations cost less than $50 and are considered low tech. So COVID-19 gives our program an avenue to discuss that and have that conversation with employers. Like, even though it’s COVID-19, look at how much our Veterans are contributing to your company, look what they can do.
Obviously there’s the physical factors to having a disability, but a lot of those factors are the social stigma and misunderstanding that people have and I imagine that still continues to be an obstacle. How would you say that you help Veterans in the program address that?
I think the biggest thing is just trying to figure out what the Veterans’ goals are, and what it is that they want to pursue, whether they prefer in-person work or remote work, and figure out what their motivation is in going back to work, whether that’s building more social networks, whether that’s income, whether that’s a second career or adventure after they retire. One of the things I do with my clients is once they get a job, I do mock interviews as well as do my other colleagues, and address any issues that they have or have faced in interviews in the past. One of the things I really focus on, for those people that are people with disabilities is disclosure. I really talk about disclosure and that whole process, and then we talk about accommodations on the job once they get hired.
If an employer is interested in maybe working with Veterans Career Program and hiring specifically some of the clients that come into your program, how would they be able to reach you?
There are two ways. You can either go on our website and fill out the contact form, and if you’re looking for specific jobs in a specific state for example, but we also have something unique in our program called Veterans Career Live, where employers can come and talk about their company and talk about specific jobs for Veterans and what their company does.
On a similar note, what would you say to someone who was interested in connecting with the Veterans Career Program themselves?
As the newest counselor, there hasn’t been a counselor on the West Coast for ages, and so I’m always looking for new ways to outreach and connect with that community. Not only here in San Diego, but throughout the West Coast.
Definitely, and I’m sure that having a counselor on the West Coast makes a world of difference in terms of the supports that you’re able to provide for people living in that region. I know you’re fairly new in comparison to the other counselors, but is there a specific moment within the past year where you made a particular impact in a Veteran’s life?
Honestly, I feel like everybody I work with and, I have that moment with every single one, whether that’s helping them connect to services and get that first job or helping them realize and change their perspective and realize that they can do this, that they can do everything that they want to do, that they can have access to those resources, they can access the dreams they once had, just in a different way. So, in working with clients, seeing that mindset shift, I can’t tell you how rewarding that is and having a Veteran say thank you, that’s the most rewarding thing I get on a daily basis.
Nice! Do you have any recent examples of that or something you’d like to share?
It’s kind of hard to separate. The most recent I’ve had is a Veteran lives in an acute living facility and they’re transitioning out, and they’re like, “I want to go back to work, but I’m older, I don’t know if I can do it.” We’re just talking and convincing and have them end the call and be like, “you know what, I think I can do this”. I actually just sent them a resume, and he’s all gung ho and ready to go. And then, helping my other Veteran today prepare for an interview he has on Monday and he’s like, “I’m so excited! I think I’ve got this!” Seeing him come from day one where he’s like, “I don’t know where to go, I don’t know what I’m going to do” and walking them step by step through the process and making them realize that they can do this.
That’s amazing. I can tell by talking with you how invested you are in both of them and their success, so thank you for what you do from that perspective.
Switching gears a little bit, when you’re not working, what are some things you like to do for fun?
In my spare time, I love drawing and painting.
That’s fun! What do you like to draw?
Anything. Animals, landscapes, a lot of flowers actually. And hanging with my two huskies.
Aw, what are your huskies’ names?
When I graduated from graduate school… Growing up, I had dogs named after presidents and first ladies, and when I went to graduate school, I was like, “I can’t have a dog”. So my oldest dog is actually a graduation present to myself. The person we got her from was like, “we’re having another litter. Do you want another one?” So my two huskies are actually siblings. They’re a year apart.
Huskies! I love that. They sound like a handful. I’m a dog mom too, but I just have a little Bichon.
Yeah, there’s a husky in our dog park who stops by regularly. They rescued him and they never changed his name, so the dog’s name is Kris, which I feel like is kind of an odd name for a dog. They’re buddies, though. Kris is an all-white husky and Maggie is a Bichon, so she’s white as well.
Life is better with fur.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me! Always great to speak with a fellow dog mom. Take care. And if you need anything else, let me know.
Of course. You too!
You can find more information on the Veterans Career Program, including the Veterans Career Live programming on our website under the Veterans Services tab. Darah, thank you so much for joining us today!