The Power of Experience: An Interview with Encore Fellow Carol Levine
Carol Levine, Encore Fellow and Founder of The Returning Veterans Project, describes her life as a series of events that fell into place, each equally important to her story and relevant to her work today.
In Carol’s first career, which began in the 1960s in New York City, she was hired as a systems analyst at IBM. However, on finding out what that job entailed, Carol quit before she started and decided to be a teacher, a wife, and a mother. When she and her family moved to the Pacific Northwest for her husband’s medical residency, Carol pursued a Masters in Education and then, rather than continuing to teach, she spent the next ten years running political campaigns and working for county executives in Portland.
Then Carol paused. For six months she wondered what would fall into place next and sensed that whatever it was, it would be important. Her next step could be seen as part two of Carol’s first career. She decided to pursue her second Masters, this time in social work. She saw this field as an intersection of education theory and social impact. With three clients signed up for therapy, Carol created her private practice, which grew and thrived for the next fifteen years.
At the time of Carol’s next big shift the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were in full swing, veterans were returning home with severe trauma, and the news was entirely about war. Carol hated reading about these wars. In fact, she had always hated reading about war and watching war movies. Descriptions of war horrified her. Then, in 2005, like a switch, everything changed. Carol recalled an old Billy Bragg lyric from the 80s: “wearing badges is not enough in days like these,” and she had the idea to do something about the effects of war.
This spark launched what would become her encore career. First she did something she had never done: she filled her bookshelves with everything she could find on war and its effects. She read about combat, about prisoners of war, about injury and post-traumatic stress, the effects on families, society, and culture. Then she started working. She called together a group of therapists she knew and talked to them about donating one free hour of therapy per week to a returning veteran. Twenty-five practitioners signed up for the volunteer positions, and they established their status as a nonprofit organization.
Eight years later, The Returning Veterans Project now works with 156 care providers and has expanded beyond providing mental health care to offering physical therapies, including massage and acupuncture, with specially trained providers who are experts in releasing trauma. They are growing strategically, with careful provider selection and training as an integral part of their program.
In 2009 Carol was awarded the Purpose Prize by Encore.org, which honors those over 60 who combine their passion and experience for social good. She believes that she could not have achieved this without the extensive and diverse experiences of her earlier life stages and encourages her peers to be agents of change in their own lives, however many careers they’ve already had.