Luis Surla found an unexpected ‘sweet’ opportunity after his time in uniform ended. The 20-year veteran watched as his Naval career was cut short due to injuries sustained on active duty. He was left wondering what could be next for his life. Thankfully, an apprentice program created by Semper Fi Fund was there to greet him with an answer and a whole lot of hope.
From caregiver to patient
The former Navy corpsman enlisted in the military while he was in high school and left for boot camp shortly after graduation. He spent most of his time on the west coast attached to the ‘green side’ with Marine units. The Surla family was no stranger to deployments as Luis deployed several times overseas. And like so many service members, Luis did not fully see the effects of his deployment until well after homecoming. He began to experience severe mental health issues that required therapy.
He first learned of Semper Fi Fund – a nonprofit organization providing immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to post 9/11 combat wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured members of all service branches and their families, when he worked as a petty officer at Naval Medical Center San Diego. The organization had been making donations to injured military personnel during their stay at the hospital. Little did Luis realize, he would one-day be among those lifted up by the Semper Fi Fund as he faced his own recovery and transition.
“Now, I was the patient. I was in Camp Pendleton in ’09, that’s when I was having a lot of my mental health issues. … They came during one of my therapies to introduce themselves and I asked for more information. Then they assigned me a case worker,” he explained.
Soon after his treatment, Luis deployed again and was injured while on ship. He had now reached a medical state that would prevent him from continuing to do the job he had for all of his adult life. The Navy eventually allowed him to continue until he reached the 20-year mark for retirement, but his family was faced with so many uncertainties as they decided what’s next.
Finding a new future
Luis and his wife, Olivia, considered what options existed to support their family. The couple was introduced to Semper Fi Fund’s apprentice program, giving them the tools to open a new family business. The couple are now proud owners of Joselle’s Bakery in California, a brick-and-mortar bakery serving homemade treats.
The corpsman-turned-entrepreneur had little knowledge of how to run a business. Luis explains that the apprenticeship allowed him to build the bakery from scratch.
“It started with the apprenticeship program. They’re a big mentor,” he said. “You know, you have to start off with the basic business plan, things that you want to look for, understanding the rules for different states, and it’s just a matter of asking questions with the (Semper Fi Fund) team.”
Passion plus support equals a promising outlook
Olivia Surla is a self-taught baker who had an affinity for making sweets early on. In previous years, she used her skills to supplement the family’s income. It made sense to take her craft to the next level.
“Well, I love baking ever since I was young. I’ve been baking when Luis was deployed, it was hard on money so I had to do something in order to have diapers, the necessary stuff that the kids need. I needed more money than what the military’s giving us,” Olivia said. “So, I learned from the book and after that, I was able to do cakes.”
The husband-and-wife duo lean on their strengths to operate Joselle’s Bakery. Luis manages the business, while Olivia creating the tasty products. He says this experience has given his family new found hope.
“It means a lot. We were able to honor our daughter by naming this bake shop after her, and having this opportunity just changes you. You’re doing something now for yourself and having the right people to be there and guide you … It’s like having another lifeline.”
The apprenticeship’s history
Semper Fi Fund has guided nearly three dozen veterans through the apprenticeship since its inception in 2015. Initially, staff identifies eligible candidates for the program. Next, they work with them on a range of apprenticeships, such as leatherworking, woodworking, photography, and landscaping, among others.
Susan Rocco, vice president of case management for the eastern region, says the idea was born from the belief that service members have diverse needs, diverse wants, and diverse goals for life after recovery.
“… we look at what stage of recovery every service member is in and look at what they’re ready for at that point. What we found was, when a service member is through the hospital, through our family support assistance and then they got their adaptive housing or other needs directly related to their recovery, we know they want a purpose in life,” Rocco said. “In the beginning, we were connecting them to corporations and companies that had jobs, and we quickly realized not every service member fits in that box. They’re not really set up or want to work behind a desk in a company, some are, but there were so many others that wanted trades or crafts.”
Semper Fi Fund connects veterans with mentors to learn these trades. The organization plans to double the number of apprentices in the future, Rocco says.
“And what we try to do with the apprenticeships and all these programs is give them a sense of purpose. That’s really what we’re striving for, is to have them find something they’re really passionate about, that they feel good about, that they get up in the morning and they’re excited,” Rocco added.
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