On one Saturday night work shift this summer, Justin Verette’s job took him to the emergency room at the University of Vermont Medical Center three times. On other nights, he attends to crises at the homes of residents who may be injecting heroin, talks with people who are suicidal, and walks the streets in downtown Burlington to check on the homeless.
“I really like that every day is different. I never know what my day is going to look like,” says Verette, an outreach interventionist at Howard Center, a Burlington-based mental health agency, who graduated with a B.A. in psychology from JSC in 2016. He responds to mental health-related calls to the Burlington Police Department and 911.
It’s no wonder that some of Verette’s professors at JSC had him talk to classes occasionally about his work.
With each situation he encounters, Verette aims to “de-escalate the situation and find out what I can do for the individual,” he says. “I’m the extra eyes out there. When I see somebody who I know may be escalating, I try to bring it down a little bit.”
With an increase in the number of mental health-related calls in Burlington, Verette is a resource to help reduce the amount of time police officers spend on those issues. Armed only with a radio, he has strategies to stay safe. “Sometimes I walk into houses where I have no idea what I’m walking into. But I try to be aware of my surroundings,” he says.
Just as Verette has used his work experience to educate Johnson classmates, the knowledge he gained from his JSC education has helped him in his job. Some of his courses focused on how to avoid professional burnout and compassion fatigue, for example. “The program at Johnson helped me remember to take care of myself and then take care of others. Especially in this profession, it’s easy to get burned out,” says Verette, 40, who was in JSC’s External Degree Program (EDP), also known as “JSC in Your Community.”
In addition to classes in psychology, he enjoyed taking wellness-related elective courses, including massage, dance, drama and music therapy. “Johnson pushed me out of my comfort zone, which is something I liked about the college,” he says. “I ended up having a great time in those classes.”
Unlike his massage class, however, Verette’s job is not entirely out of his comfort zone.
In his early 20s in Santa Cruz, California, his native state, he went through a rough period: some drug involvement, some misdemeanors. “I wasn’t making the right choices. I ended up homeless for a little bit,” Verette says, “living in hotels and couch surfing.” He came to realize, though, that “I was too young to just kind of give up and live out on the street.”
He studied juvenile corrections at a California college for a while before deciding to check out Vermont, where his sister lived. A volunteer stint with Spectrum Youth & Family Services, a center for at-risk and homeless young people in Burlington, eventually led to a full-time position there. “I had experienced some of the same stuff as the clients at Spectrum I was working with,” Verette says. “I wanted to give back.”
Through his work at Spectrum and as a volunteer with Howard Center’s needle-exchange program, he got to know Burlington police officers. He never thought he’d be working with police in a social services role, but his time at Spectrum changed his mind. “I realized that I could have an impact on a person. That was huge for me,” he says.
Discovering JSC’s External Degree Program also was huge for Verette.
He talked with other people who had earned psychology degrees through the program. “They had nothing but good things to say,” he recalls. “It just felt like this was going to be the right fit.”
He took advantage of the program’s flexibility, working full time and taking classes part time, both online and at satellite sites in Montpelier and Winooski. He liked Johnson’s small classes, which he says fostered a sense of community. “The program really works with your schedule,” he says. “The advisors let you decide how much time you have to put into the program. They want you to be successful, and they want you to graduate, so they’re willing to work with you. That’s what’s huge.”
Because of Verette’s social services work, for example, Johnson officials waived the internship required of psychology students, and he took a seminar class instead.
“Justin was able to contribute greatly to classroom discussions based on his experience… And the flexibility of the course offerings meant that he was always able to find an option that worked with his schedule,” says Marianne DiMascio, Verette’s Winooski-based JSC advisor. Noting that Verette may now purse a master’s degree in counseling from JSC, she adds that he is “very committed to making life better for all members of our community.”
It’s a commitment Verette puts to work every day on the streets of Burlington.
“The most rewarding part of my job is making connections with clients who have a bad taste in their mouths when it comes to social workers,” he says, “and getting them to trust me -– to recognize, ‘I’m in a crisis, and now Justin is here so I feel safe trying to figure out what kind of help I need.’
“A lot of families rely on me and my teammates,” he adds. “I’m playing the role of someone I wish I had had in my life.”