Deborah Jesseman, a U.S. Navy veteran, was awarded March 27 the Crossroads Hospice 2014 Caring More Award, which recognizes a social worker who goes beyond the call of duty for members of their community.
After a decade of service in the Navy, Jesseman, team leader at the Montgomery County Vet Center, dedicated her life to helping veterans overcome trauma and transition back into civilian life.
Jesseman’s award is one of 11 Caring More Awards given at each Crossroads Hospice location throughout the country. Nominations are submitted for each region and voted on by a panel of independent judges.
Mike Volz, veteran outreach specialist at the Harrisburg Vet Center, said Jesseman immediately came to mind when he heard of the award.
“When I found out that there was a Caring More Award for social workers in this area, I couldn’t think of anyone that would be more fitting to receive this award,” Volz said. “There is a drive in her that she will go above and beyond for any veteran.”
Surrounded by friends, family and co-workers, Jesseman stood to receive the award from Gloria Allen, the executive director of Crossroads Hospice, but not before embracing longtime friend Juan Malave, team leader of the Philadelphia Vet Center NE.
Malave hired Jesseman to work for the Philadelphia Vet Center back in 2000, when a long-term counselor left the position.
“I was very, very impressed,” Malave said about bringing Jesseman onto the team. “All you had to do was assign Debbie to do something and it was done.”
Before long, Malave recommended Jesseman take over as a team leader herself.
“When we opened up the vet centers in Norristown and Bristol I got the word and I called Debbie aside and said I think you’re going to be a team leader,” Malave said.
Along with the plaque, the recipient of the Caring More Award is given $500 to donate to a charity of their choice according to Allon.
Jesseman chose the recently founded nonprofit organization Vets for Vets, which supports returning veterans during their readjustment from military to civilian life by providing safe and positive transitional housing that offers camaraderie, life skills, as well as educational and employment opportunities.
Jake Leone, founder of Vets for Vets, was there to accept the donation from Jesseman.
“His vision, for me, meets the vet center’s vision. It’s going to be there for the veterans in covering all aspects of their readjustment,” Jesseman said about Jake and Vets for Vets. “One thing that caught me and brought me in is that he had space available for the female veterans. There aren’t many transitional houses for veterans that do have open space for the female veterans and their families. And that was very inspiring to me, to know that you’re thinking of all veterans who wear the uniform.”
“It’s been extremely inspiring to know that we have someone at Deb’s level on our side to support us. Not only is it a tremendous honor, but it’s just inspiring to know that you selected us to receive this donation,” Leone said.
Jesseman went on to share the events in her life that pushed her to dedicate so much time and energy into helping veterans.
Before her service began, during training, Jesseman was the victim of sexual assault. Three months later she was three months pregnant. Knowing she could not provide for her child and that, at the time, she would not be allowed to join the military as a single parent, she put her baby up for adoption.
“All through my career it was accepted what women were supposed to do,” Jesseman said about life in the military. “They were supposed to accept the innuendos; they were supposed to accept the touching. That was part of our expectations.”
Jesseman pushed through the abuse and strove to give her all for her country despite alienation from other naval officers after she reported physical assault. Jesseman received two Navy Achievement Medals for outstanding performance, two Overseas Medals, a National Defense Medal and a Meritorious Unit Commendation.
“I loved wearing the uniform. The Navy was my life,” Jesseman said. “When I came home and hung my uniform up, I felt like my life fell apart.”
For Jesseman, who was then suffering nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder, the road to recovery began when she visited a vet center and felt part of a caring community.
“I knew I wanted to be a part of that,” Jesseman said about the support she received. Jesseman went to school to become a social worker and soon found herself being interviewed by Malave and joining the Philadelphia Vet Center.
During her quest to become a social worker, Jesseman was reunited with her daughter, who tracked her down. Jesseman now lives with her wife, Ellen, and spends as much time as she can with her daughter and two grandchildren.
Jesseman said she is grateful to have such a loving and supportive family both at home and at the vet center.
“For me it’s extremely important to give and be around people that want to give,” Jesseman said about her team in Norristown, echoing Malave’s descriptions of her. “I can give you an assignment and I know it’s going to get done.”
The act of giving back is its own reward to Jesseman, who said she only does what is necessary for those in need.
“I’ve been able to see it in the vet’s face when things are getting better,” Jesseman said. “People tell me that I am passionate about my work and that it’s obvious that I care. I do care and I am passionate, but I don’t see that I go beyond what is expected. I cannot imagine doing less.”
Crossroads Hospice provides hospice and palliative care services and support to patients and families dealing with end of life situations, according to its website.
For more information on the Caring More Award, visit the Crossroads Hospice website, www.crossroadshospice.org.
The Norristown Vet Center is located at 320 E. Johnson Highway, Suite 201, in Norristown. To contact the center, call 215-823-5245 or 877-927-8387.
For more information on the Vets for Vets organization, visit www.soldiertocivilian.org.