The Veteran Leadership Program Scholar-led initiative helping veterans find prosperity, self-sufficiency, and hope

Holly Bernardo
Guest Author

Holly Bernardo is the Director of Hope Navigators at the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs and a 2022 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar.

My connection to veterans has always been very personal. My grandfather, uncles, father, and brothers all served, and I’ve seen the challenges that many veterans face up close. I am now privileged to give back to those who have given us so much as Director of Hope Navigators for the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs (FDVA).  

In this role, I lead a team of case managers, designated as Hope Navigators, who guide Florida veterans and their families on personalized paths toward economic self-sufficiency, helping instill a crucial sense of hope in their lives. Hope Florida is growing and recently expanded to include Florida Department of Veteran Affairs. Hope Navigators work under the umbrella of the Hope Florida Program.

I’ve witnessed firsthand how the initiative has significantly improved the lives of those it has touched, helping families transition from shelters to furnished homes. And I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with remarkable nonprofits and faith communities serving veterans statewide.  

One five-year United States Navy veteran was living in a small, fifth wheel trailer with his wife and daughter and expecting another child when the family reached out to Hope Florida. One of our Hope Navigators referred them to St. Vincent De Paul – an organization that specializes in providing support for unhoused veterans – which helped them find a suitable place to live with enough space for their growing family.  

Another impactful connection came after Hurricane Idalia hit Florida’s Big Bend last year, causing substantial damage and destruction. One of our Hope Navigators who was deployed to a Disaster Recovery Site met with a 76-year-old Army veteran and his wife whose home had been hit hard and riddled with debris and trees. They were unable to hire a company to help with the cleanup and couldn’t take care of it themselves due to their age and health. So the Hope Navigator connected the couple with Cajun Navy Ground Force, which works to protect and stabilize the elderly and disabled population impacted by natural disasters. The organization was on site clearing the property soon after they received the referral. 

These are examples of what sets Hope Florida apart: its commitment to fostering collaboration across diverse sectors, breaking down traditional community silos. From the private sector and faith-based communities to nonprofits and government entities, the program maximizes resources and unveils opportunities, ensuring every facet of society contributes to shaping solutions. Since our launch, we’ve assisted nearly two hundred veterans in accessing housing, benefits, health care, and legal services. 

But the true catalyst for change is the communication between veterans and their Hope Navigators. These dedicated guides play a crucial role in helping veterans identify immediate barriers to prosperity, develop long-term goals, and craft strategic plans.  

The process ensures that all sectors of the community have a seat at the table in shaping solutions, fostering a holistic and inclusive approach that recognizes the unique challenges faced by veterans.  

Recently, we successfully transitioned a homeless veteran into housing, leveraging his earned benefits of HUD Vash housing for his apartment and collaborating with the faith-based community to provide him with essential furnishings.  

As a testament to its success, this innovative initiative continues to exemplify the resilience and adaptability needed to address the multifaceted challenges faced by Florida’s veterans. Through Hope Florida – A Pathway For Patriots, the state is paving the way for a brighter, more inclusive future, where prosperity and self-sufficiency become attainable goals for veterans statewide.