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VA to hire 250 in Rogue Valley

Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City plans to hire 250 employees, with about 100 of the new hires focused on providing mental health care for veterans.

The changes come as SORCC continues to ramp up its mental health and addiction treatment services, while also benefiting from the lifting of a hiring freeze on civilian workers in the federal government. SORCC currently has 650 workers, officials said.

President Donald Trump's administration put a broad hiring freeze in place when he took office in January 2017. Vacant positions in the federal government could not be filled, and new positions could not be created. Positions necessary for national security or public safety were exempt from the ban, according to a directive from the administration.

The White House lifted the freeze in April 2017, but it also issued directions to federal agencies to reduce the number of their employees and to operate more efficiently.

The Veterans Affairs department responded by lifting restrictions on most new hires while taking a cautious approach on filling senior administrative posts, The Associated Press reported.

SORCC is recruiting psychiatrists, psychologists, peer support specialists, social workers and other employees, said Dr. Margo Funk, associate chief of staff for the Mental Health Service Line at SORCC.

"This effort to hire more staff is to help us provide the breadth and depth of mental health services that veterans need. We've had a lot of vacancies we were not authorized to fill," she said.

SORCC has long struggled to recruit enough mental health workers but fell further behind during the hiring freeze, said SORCC spokeswoman Rhonda Haney.

Veteran Jyl Hendricks said she is glad to hear SORCC is hiring more employees.

She served as a security specialist in the U.S. Air Force in the 1980s and was stationed in Germany. Later, she ran a company in the construction industry for 10 years, but struggled with depression — which in turn led to alcohol abuse.

Hendricks was living in Lakeview with her horses, dogs and cats, isolated from VA services. She acted on a recommendation to enter residential treatment at SORCC on Nov. 26, 2017.

"I've never been in residential treatment before," she said.

This week, Hendricks graduated from the treatment program.

Most people stay in the residential treatment program for about 90 to 100 days, Funk said.

"My experience here at the White City VA has been very positive and uplifting," Hendricks said. "The staff have been incredible. Just everything about the whole place is just very uplifting and supportive."

Although she was afraid when she first arrived at the sprawling SORCC campus, Hendricks said the staff members and other veterans have been warm and welcoming, with everyone checking in on the well-being of the others.

Hendricks said she learned coping skills so she doesn't have to turn to alcohol. She also got new glasses plus hearing aids. Her hearing was damaged from the sounds of aircraft and weapons during her time in the Air Force. She goes on morning walks of more than two miles.

"My mission here is to be healthy," she said.

A member of the Wampanoag tribe whose ancestral lands are on the East Coast, Hendricks said she appreciates SORCC's taillored programs and services that take into account Native American culture, as well as issues affecting women veterans.

Her room at SORCC, which looks like a college dormitory room, is decorated with a Native American pattern bedspread and bird feathers. She has a government permit to possess animal parts, including a golden eagle talon necklace that she wears.

"I was able to bring in my own personal things so it feels like home and not institutionalized. They've made it so I'm very comfortable here," Hendricks said.

SORCC is in the midst of a remodeling program and is also replacing buildings that don't meet seismic standards.

Hendricks enjoys spending time writing on her computer and has been crafting a business plan for First Nation Raptor Rehabilitation, a bird of prey rehabilitation service she hopes to launch. One of her field trips from SORCC included a visit to the Wildlife Images rehabilitation center outside Grants Pass.

Hendricks has settled so well into the Rogue Valley that she plans to relocate her animals and move here permanently. She is applying for jobs in the community as well as for a painter job or a carpenter position at SORCC.

Hendricks said she would love to work for the SORCC so she can remain a part of the supportive community there. But even if she gets a job elsewhere, she can stay a part of the SORCC community through outpatient services.

"I'm happy to be here. If I know of another veteran who can utilize these services, I'll most certainly pass it on," she said.

SORCC employees said they hope the supportive environment of their workplace will help in the process to recruit people for the 250 open positions.

Mental health facilities across the nation are struggling with a chronic shortage of workers in the field.

"The psychologists and psychiatrists especially will be hard to fill," said Carrie Davis, acting human relations chief at SORCC.

Some prospective mental and physical health workers overlook the Rogue Valley because they envision the entire state of Oregon as a rainy place, she said.

Additionally, the military has a reputation for being difficult on family life. Than can be true for soldiers who are deployed overseas.

But Davis, Funk and Haney all agreed SORCC is a good place to work for people who have or plan to have children.

"We really want to be family-friendly to all of our providers," Funk said.

SORCC offers alternative and compressed work schedules, a solid benefits package and medical leave time for childbirth and other events, Davis said.

In addition to hiring for SORCC's White City campus, the VA plans to boost its mental health teams in its satellite Community Based Outpatient Clinics in Grants Pass and Klamath Falls, Funk said.

Each of those clinics has one mental health worker, but staffing will rise to three or four mental health workers at each clinic, Funk said.

"That will be really great. That is something we've needed," she said.

U.S. Army veteran Tom Taylor, who served in the 1970s, said he thinks hiring more SORCC employees is a good thing.

During his time in treatment at SORCC, Taylor said he's gained the knowledge to understand why he has been misusing alcohol for decades.

"It's fabulous all the way around here," he said. "I've tried everything else. I'm glad I came here."

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Tom Taylor signs in at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City for a treatment session Friday morning. [Mail Tribune /Andy Atkinson]
Jyl Hendricks says her experience in the residential treatment program at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics has been 'positive and uplifting.' [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]