Alumnae/i Feature

Coming Full-Circle: Simmons Alum with Veteran Parents Now Supporting Veterans in Need

The USA flag flying next to the Main Campus Building on the Simmons University campus

“I made amazing connections at Simmons. I’m thankful for all of the professors who helped jumpstart my career in so many ways.”

For Sarah Clinton ’17MSW, working with Veterans — currently as an Aftercare Social Work Case Manager for the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program — is a full circle moment. 

“My parents are both Veterans,” says Clinton, who grew up on military bases in Massachusetts, Alaska, and Hawaii, and elsewhere in military-provided housing while her parents were on active duty for the Coast Guard. “I have that intimate knowledge and experience from being surrounded by military culture, and living at the whim of the military. I’m able to translate that experience into empathy for Veterans as they struggle to adjust to civilian life, or are separated from communities due to travel orders. That’s what I love to do, to partner with folks and hear their stories, to be invited as a guest on their journey. I can empathize with them, having had my own experiences.” 

For her own part, Clinton adapted to living outside of a military base when her parents transitioned to a single family home for the duration of her four years in high school. “The biggest challenge was the lack of familiarity in that community,” she recalls. “On a military base, everyone is used to being the new kid and accepting the new kids.” Moving to a “very insular” and predominantly White town in southern New Hampshire, her newness was distinct. “The other kids had been in school together since kindergarten. Folks didn’t see me as a part of their community. And it was odd to me that everyone looked the same! That was a shift, for sure.” 

The Road to Social Work 

After graduating from her undergraduate studies and moving to Jacksonville, Florida, Clinton became an Americorps member for the North Florida Health Corps, through the Medical Home for Homeless Children Project. In this role, she provided housing and resources to families in the foster care system or living in shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness. “I was a caseworker, meeting with families, making sure kids had wellness checks, and connecting people to stabilization programs for housing,” recalls Clinton. “That basic need for housing must be addressed before people can launch their lives.”

Clinton later worked as a case manager for the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN), an LGBTQ mental health center in Florida, where she referred clients to resources for mental health and substance abuse support. “I worked with people who had been estranged from their families due to their identity and sexual orientation,” she says. “Housing became a through-line. I’ve seen the trauma of housing insecurity and of being unhoused.” At JASMYN, she ran a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) harm reduction intervention and education program adapted for LGBTQ youth, was an HIV Care linkage case manager, and eventually Assistant Director of Programs. “We offered a safe and supportive outlet for youth, as well as a STI and HIV testing clinic, and helped connect youth, many of whom were experiencing homelessness due to being kicked out of their family homes. Most importantly, we offered them an outlet and a sense of community.”

JASMYN planted the seed of Clinton’s future career in social work. “My former supervisor was a social worker. She was using social work theory in our staff meetings. I was being coached without even realizing it.” At the time, Clinton was set on going to law school, but had also applied to the Social Work program at Simmons, at her supervisor’s urging. “I realized that what I really wanted was to be an advocate for people. I saw [my supervisor] as an advocate and realized that this profession would allow me to lead and use all different types of skills. I realized I was already a social worker at heart.” 

The Value of Simmons

“I made amazing connections at Simmons,” says Clinton. “I’m thankful for all of the professors who helped jumpstart my career in so many ways. Professor Gary Bailey truly inspired me in a way that reinforced that I was on the right career path.” 

Beyond career guidance, Bailey also gave her valuable advice she follows to this day. “He told me, you cannot withdraw from the health bank if you do not invest. That always stuck with me. I learned to be intentional about caring for myself and filling my cup. It takes effort and self awareness to have regular temperature checks with yourself, but it’s worth it. Burnout is very real.” 

Working with Veterans

Clinton notes that there is intersectionality among the populations of people she has served over the course of her career. “Veterans come in every shape, size, form, and identity,” she says. “All of my career experiences help me be attuned to families as they struggle to find affordable housing and maintain it.”

In her first role as a Social Work Case Manager for the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program, Clinton connected people with Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers that allow subsidy funds from the state. “At first, I worked to stabilize people actively in their recovery journey, maybe helping them find their first apartment and working on life skills.” 

Currently, Clinton is the HUD-VASH Aftercare Social Work Case Manager at VA Bedford Healthcare System, after HUD-VASH shifted to phase-based (as opposed to geographically-based) case manager assignments. There she oversees the Aftercare Phase of the program, in which Veterans who do not have ongoing case management report to her if any issues arise, housing or otherwise. Clinton has developed the Aftercare Phase to streamline and coordinate better service delivery to Veterans. “I’m now reconnecting with some of those folks I saw years ago when they were struggling, making sure they have everything in place to maintain their subsidy.”

Clinton notes that for folks who have experienced being unhoused, there is a real risk of recidivism. “Sometimes we’re patting ourselves on the back for the success stories, but we fail to check in five years down the line. Life can be hard, people can slip in their recovery efforts. The shame component makes it hard to reach out. I’m glad we have a system in place to not let folks fall through the cracks. That’s been a great joy [of this work], to reconnect with people who were struggling and bring them back into case management if needed, [as part of the HUD-VASH Aftercare program].”

Kathryn Cochrane, the HUD-VASH Program Manager, says, “Sarah is an incredibly valuable asset, not just for the Bedford HUD-VASH program and the Veterans it serves, but for the hospital and VA health care system at large. We appreciate her commitment to providing the best care to Veterans and creating a work environment within the organization that best facilitates the excellent standard of care that VA strives to offer. Sarah embodies the mission of the Social Work profession in her dedication to service, social justice, integrity, and competence. She is a leader of change and inspires those around her to be a part of that change and we are lucky to have her serving those who served at VA Bedford.”

Reflecting on the upcoming July 4 holiday, Clinton is thankful to Veterans who have dedicated their lives to serve our country, while also recognizing the systems of oppression that cause harm. “Many [Veterans] have suffered during service and experienced traumas, later to be denied access to employment, healthcare, and housing. Many continue to experience discrimination and live with the active threats of violence based on their identity. There is much work to do to honor ALL of those who serve our country.” She also notes, “I hope that people will take time to reflect on their right to vote, the inequities that surround voting itself, and what they can do to help further promote a more equitable society by improving the civic health of our country.”

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Alisa M. Libby