State Park Program Helps Homeless Veterans Get Back On Their Feet

December 31, 2013

(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
Arizona State Park Ranger Joel Macejak is stationed at the Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood. He is a former veteran and lost everything in 2011.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
Ranger Macejak gives a tour of the grounds. He points to the Verde River area.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)
The FEMA trailer area where Ranger Macejak lives while he works at the Dead Horse Ranch State Park.

There is a state pilot program that has the caught the attention of federal and other state agencies across the country. It is aimed at placing homeless veterans back to work in government jobs. The newly launched initiative has already hired a handful of veterans.

“Yeah, you can see the river," said Joel Macejak, an Arizona state park ranger stationed at the Dead Horse Ranch in Cottonwood.

Macejak has been on the job for only two weeks, and he already knows the best spots for picturesque views of the area.

“That’s the Verde River right down there," he said. 

The 55 year-old former Air Force and Army veteran is one of five people just hired for an Arizona State Parks workforce pilot program for homeless vets.

“(If) someone had told me a year ago that I’d be doing this I would have looked at them as if they were crazy, but I’m glad that it is what it is now. I’m just thankful for being here," Macejak said. 

In 2009, Macejak began dealing with serious bouts of depression and had to leave his job as a correctional officer. By 2011 he lost everything, including his home and car. He lived in shelters throughout the Valley. Finding work was difficult until September, when a shelter told him about state parks’ work program for veterans like him. 

“I thought it was a golden opportunity, not something you come across very often because most state and federal park service jobs are snatched-up as quickly as they’re available," said Macejak. 

Macejak said he asked his Veterans Administration liaison to help him find out more about it and at least submit an application. And he did. Macejak describes his new job as making it pleasant for people to be here.

“Just menial tasks like emptying the garbage, cleaning the bathrooms, making sure that hazards such as tree stumps are removed. If there are problems with plumbing anywhere in any of the campsites we do what we can to fix it," Macejak explained. 

"I’d heard a story one morning coming into work on NPR no less, on the suicide rate for veterans, and I was taken aback," said Bryan Martyn, executive director of the Arizona State Parks.

Martyn is also a retired combat veteran and the creator of the homeless veterans work pilot program.

"I could not believe that it was as high as it was. I think at the time it was 22 veterans a day were taking their lives, and I thought about what could I do," said Martyn.

Martyn said he thought of the temporary positions at his agency, also known as "seasonals." They are full-time jobs at $12 an hour that last for about nine months. Seasonals are responsible for the park’s upkeep, like clearing trails and building maintenance, and the veterans are provided a trailer to live on the park grounds.

“We get a lot of guys and gals who are qualified to do this kind of thing. They just need a chance," said Martyn.

The program was launched in November. With the help of the local Veterans Administration, six candidates were interviewed. Five were hired.

The men are stationed in three of the state parks, Lake Havasu, Show Low and Cottonwood. Martyn said the immediate goal is to test the program. For the next three months, the agency is evaluating how the veterans adjust to the job, living in the park and continuing with their VA support sessions.

"It was a perfect fit when you know that your employees have the skills before you hire them. It made it easy," said Martyn.

Martyn said the D.C. VA office and other states are keeping a watchful eye on it as well. Several are considering implementing a similar program. He said if this succeeds, the Arizona State Parks could hire more homeless veterans.

Back in Cottonwood, Macejak continues with our tour of the park.

“What do you listen to when you’re out here?” I asked him.

“The sounds of silence combined with the sounds of nature and my own thoughts," Macejak described.

“Happy thoughts?” I asked.

“Yep, getting better by the day," Macejak said.

He said he plans on taking advantage of an opportunity the Arizona State Parks is giving him. When this job is over, he will apply for a permanent position with the agency.