Bradenton organization puts former homeless vet's skills to good use

vmannix@bradenton.comJanuary 20, 2014 

Mark Allender is smiling a lot these days thanks to John Smith's mentoring at Turning Points. Smith calls Allender his right-hand man. VIN MANNIX/Bradenton Herald.

BRADENTON

It was a busy morning for Mark Allender, but he wasn't complaining.

The Turning Points volunteer wouldn't want it any other way.

There were personnel files to update.

Follow up phone calls to make.

Checking on fellow veterans' appointments.

"Whatever needs doing, I do," said Allender, 65.

John Smith is glad.

"Mark is my right-hand man," he said.

Allender was just one of more than 250 at-risk veterans Smith assisted as an AmeriCorps Vista veteran community support coordinator for 14 months. Since Oct. 1, Allender has been at Turning Points on 17th Avenue West with Smith, who's helped another 70 veterans as case manager with the Supportive Services for Veterans Families program.

They're veterans from the Korean War to Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with issues such as alcoholism, abuse,

drugs, family problems, homelessness and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"He's our go-to guy when it comes to reaching out to veterans and bringing them into this program," Smith said. "Mark is somebody they can talk to about what's going on in their lives, because he's somebody who's been there."

"I was them," Allender said. "I am them."

Eighteen months ago he was a thrice-married, homeless Vietnam veteran and crack addict languishing in a Bradenton crack house, a dead end in an on-again, off-again 18-year battle with substance abuse.

"I was a binge user," said the retired adolescent counselor. "I could go months without, but when I used again it was like I never stopped."

That changed when a friend drove him to see Smith, who convinced Allender help was available.

But he had to want it.

"You have to know how much people care before you care how much they know," Allender said.

"Dad needed that one person to make him listen -- and it was John Smith," said Heather Shattuck, a married mother of three. "With us it was a closed door, but we knew what he was doing."

Her father got straight with the help of a church, bunked at the Salvation Army men's shelter, then got connected with HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, thanks to Smith. It's a program dealing with rental assistance for homeless veterans.

Allender moved into an apartment 13 months ago and eventually Smith put his skills to good use.

"The first concern is the veteran falls back into same pattern if they don't have anything to fulfill their lives," Smith said. "So we had to see if it was a good fit to get him involved here -- and it was."

Whether it's been finding veterans housing, transportation to Bay Pines VA Hospital, scheduling counseling, etc., Allender is in his element.

"Mark is instrumental because he's their first contact and immediately develops a rapport with them," Smith said.

Still, it can be hit and miss.

"A lot of vets don't want to ask for help," Allender said. "We may be able to help, but they're not ready to ask. Some come in who are just ready to get it done. There is a better way, man."

Allender is back in his family's lives, spending holidays with them and driving his grandchildren to school.

"Restoring my relationships is paramount," he said. "Now I can also help other vets in similar. That is so gratifying. I know we don't have to live like that anymore and make changes alone."

Allender is living proof.

"He's turned his life around and I'm proud of him," his daughter said. "I hope he stays on the right path."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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