Jericha Peterson has always been intrigued by why people think and act the way they do, and she says she’s also the kind of person that people feel comfortable talking to.
“I’m the person they’ll meet in the store, and they just start talking. I don't know why; they just do,” she says. “I like to hear people's stories because it tells me why they present the way they do – whether it's negative or positive.”
This past May, Peterson earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Carolina and is using her education and training along with her innate people skills and compassion to work with homeless veterans at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
She says that each of her life experiences has led her to her current career as a licensed social worker.
Growing up in Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, Peterson was inspired by her mother, who worked in the medical field, and served in the community and in the church.
“My mom and my brother inspired me because my mom had a servant heart, and my brother taught me that everyone is different in some way,” she says. “He is on the autism spectrum. The word spectrum stands out to me because I believe we all are on a spectrum in some way, shape or form.”
Peterson attended Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, and graduated in 2010 with a degree in sociology and criminal justice. With the economy still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, she joined the Air National Guard after graduation, which eventually led to a full-time job in human resources with the military and other federal agencies.
As she continued her career and her education, earning an MBA in human resources management, Peterson’s lifelong calling to serve others remained. In 2014, she leaned on her faith and was led to create Mothers on a Mission. Motivated by her undergraduate experience, the goal of the nonprofit organization is to empower women with children by providing financial, mental and emotional support for personal and professional development.
Peterson became pregnant with her oldest daughter during her junior year in college. The challenges she faced as a single mother while also being a student inspired her to create a scholarship fund at her alma mater with a goal to improve the college dropout rate for women in a similar circumstance. Mothers on a Mission also has a crisis fund that provides a small stipend to women and families referred by other agencies.
“With some programs, you might have to wait a month to get your application reviewed and then wait another month to receive funds. By then, your lights are turned off,” Peterson says.
As a small two-person operation, Mothers on a Mission can be more flexible and accessible.
“Sometimes looking at big-picture issues can be overwhelming, and you feel like you can't have an impact,” Peterson says, “but you can start with one person at a time and make you can make a difference that way.”
Even though she felt she could help people in her human resources career, Peterson felt unfulfilled, and the tug to do something more tangible got stronger. She applied several times and was accepted to graduate school to study for a master’s degree in social work, but with other responsibilities (she has two daughters, now ages 14 and 8), the timing never felt right.
“Then one day when I pulled up to my office building, I just sat in my car, and I was crying,” she says. “Even though I felt like I was making a difference with the veterans through my job, I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. I had a yearning for a deeper understanding of people.”
It was then she realized there was never going to be a right time to go back to school, so when she applied to the College of Social Work at USC and was accepted again, this time she took the leap.
In August, she started work as a homeless veteran intake social worker at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Columbia, South Carolina. She assists unsheltered veterans and those for whom homelessness is imminent in finding transitional housing and community resources and referring them to other areas of the VA that might help. Because of her interest in supporting women, she also is attuned to the needs of female veterans in successfully accessing resources as a minority demographic in a male-dominated profession.
“When I’m working with someone, I can't focus only on one demographic. I have to understand how all of their experiences and systems impact them,” she says. “This person is not just a veteran. They're not just a male or female. This person had a life before being in the military. They had a life after being in the military.”
Although the number of homeless veterans has been decreasing, about 40,000 veterans in the U.S. are homeless on any given night, according to National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. In addition to a shortage of affordable housing and livable income, displaced and at-risk veterans often struggle with mental or psychiatric issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, Peterson says.
In her job at the VA, she is able to use the foundation and skills she learned at USC and her experience as an Air Force veteran to build rapport with clients and become a successful clinician.
“My goal is to make the people I encounter feel empowered,” she says. “In a world that can make you feel like you're not good enough, I want them to be successful. I want them to see their potential.