WESTON, Conn. – Four years ago, Weston resident Vicki Thomas took her 35 years of marketing and public relations experience and put them to use for Purple Heart Homes, an organization that helps wounded veterans find permanent housing solutions. While she changed the lives of others, she also changed her own.
Thomas, 68, won the Purpose Prize worth $100,000 late last year from Encore.org, a nonprofit organization which helps people pursue second careers for community causes. The path Thomas has followed in her “encore” career could not have been more surprising or emotionally rewarding.
“Never, never, never,’’ Thomas said when asked if she could have foreseen her new career four years ago, when she was ending her corporate career. “It was like the perfect converging storm. I would’ve never dreamed I would be doing what I am now. And I’m eternally grateful.”
A story on CNN about Purple Heart Homes piqued Thomas’ interest in 2010. Dale Beatty and John Gallina were Iraq War veterans who suffered injuries when the vehicle they were riding in on Nov. 15, 2004, was ripped apart by anti-tank mines. Beatty was left a double amputee below the knees. Gallina suffered injuries to the head and back.
The clip triggered Thomas to seek them out. For someone who grew up protesting the Vietnam War, it was a startling attitude change. “I remember our high school principal would get on the loudspeaker and tell us about former students who died in Vietnam,’’ Thomas said. “It was just so sad. Then when I went off to college, I protested the war. It was a time of great turbulence. You get out of college and get a job, and you suppress a lot of things. Whenever I see a parade in a small town and you have the music and the veterans, it moves me. That flag is a consequence of men and women who died for our country. That passion for the flag, the deep-seated passion for the Vietnam War, led me to Purple Heart Homes.”
She cold-called Beatty and Gallina, and told them she was prepared to help them increase the visibility of their program. “I needed to know if they were ready for me,’’ Thomas said. “I told them we had to expand and provide solutions across the country. If they weren’t ready for that, they weren’t ready for me. They were diamonds in the rough ready to be shaped and molded. They were students ready for the teacher. I was blessed that I happened to be the teacher.”
Thomas’ first decision was to stage Beatty as the face of PHH. “Those legs will be visible everywhere we go,’’ Thomas told him. Gallina was the symbol of the invisible injuries of war.
In just one year, Thomas helped increase donations to PHH by 600 percent. She also found Peach State Federal Credit Union in Georgia, which issues special 15-year mortgages for veterans. She helped expand PHH’s budget from $100,000 when she started to $3.2 million last year, and a projected $6 million for 2014. PHH expects to start 500 projects in the next four years.
PHH helps veterans purchase or remodel homes at little or no cost to the veteran. Thomas’ husband, Steve, has been a contractor in Fairfield County for decades and has helped build and renovate some PHH properties. “He bails my butt out,’’ Thomas said.
Thomas is the regional director in the Northeast for PHH, but her primary role is to create community awareness. Once Thomas makes contact with a benefactor, Gallina and Beatty deliver the message. “We all have labels. I’m the door opener,’’ Thomas said. “Dale is the story teller and John is the closer. Those guys are able to get just about whatever we need.”
Thomas enjoyed her previous career. She said it pales in comparison, however, to the reward she finds in her new role.
“When I was in my profession, I was a gun for hire,’’ she said. “I had a job description and this is what you’re paid to do and you’ll be compensated based on how well you handle your job description. Because I was paid to do public relations and marketing, I’m now able to take those skill sets independent of a corporation and apply them for the greater good and make a difference in someone’s life. I’ve moved from making shareholders happy, to making shareholders a part of Purple Heart Homes.”