At age 18, Kaleigh Vanderlip joined the Michigan Army National Guard.

In 2009, straight out of basic training, the National Guard sent her to Iraq for eight months.

When she returned home to the small town of Coral, Michigan, Vanderlip immediately began applying for jobs. She filled out application after application, but never got a return call.

Not even from gas stations.

“I was on unemployment for about a year because I had no job experience other than the military,” Vanderlip said.

Then she found the Spectrum Health Veteran Explorer Program.

Vanderlip’s strong work ethic and determination to make a better life for her son, Kayden, proved to be instrumental in her ability to find a fulfilling career in health care.

But the Veteran Explorer Program also had a hand in that journey.

“It has been everything for me,” Vanderlip said.

The program helps unemployed or underemployed veterans build job skills through paid internships, career development workshops, networking and other support. The internships include three 10-week rotations.

Since its creation in March 2013, the program has worked with 61 veterans, 33 of whom Spectrum Health has hired to full-time jobs in facilities, human resources, payer relations, information services, emergency medicine, financial counseling, security, nursing, patient experience and other departments.

“Ultimately, our hope is to be a gold-level employer for veterans and giving back to them for what they have done for us,” said Scott Douse, Spectrum Health human resources recruiter.

Marching on

Vanderlip’s path from soldier to Spectrum Health started with two operative roles: student and volunteer.

After struggling to find a job upon her return from Iraq, she enrolled at Montcalm Community College. She also landed a part-time job at the Coral post office.

She went on to earn her associate degree and then transferred to Grand Valley State University, where in April 2017 she graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

In her second year of school, Vanderlip planned to become an ultrasound technician. To get into the program, she needed volunteer experience in the health care field.

She signed up at Spectrum Health United Hospital in Greenville, where she stumbled upon information about the Veteran Explorer Program.

Vanderlip interviewed for a position in the program and got accepted, but she had to turn it down because it conflicted with her academic schedule.

She dug in and focused on completing school, majoring in psychology. But she also made a point to let the Veteran Explorer Program know about her graduation date.

In early spring, Charlotte Byndas, Spectrum Health human resources manager of talent selection, reached out to Vanderlip to see if she still had an interest in an internship.

“She said there would be an opening after graduation if I wanted it,” Vanderlip said.

Shortly after graduating in May 2017, Vanderlip joined the program. Given her minor in statistics, Byndas had just the place for her: data analyst for supply chain services.

“I just really loved what I was doing here,” Vanderlip said. “And I loved that it had an opportunity for afterwards.”

By the end of her internship, Vanderlip received an offer from Spectrum Health for a full-time job as an associate business intelligence analyst at the distribution center in Walker, Michigan.

She started on Oct. 15, 2017.

“I love what I do,” Vanderlip said. “It’s something that I never would have thought about before.”

She’s grateful to the Veteran Explorer Program for leading her to her new career.

“It got me everything I have and I couldn’t be happier where I am,” she said. “It’s not just a job for me. It’s a career … I couldn’t ask for anything better and I am very, very happy I got the opportunity.”

A foot in the door

Kyle Wendt, the most recent graduate of the Veteran Explorer Program, completed his internship in March. He has already found a job as a full-time recruiter in human resources.

Wendt learned about the Veteran Explorer Program while working nights in environmental services at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital and taking classes during the day at Grand Rapids Community College. Hired for the Veteran Explorer internship, he switched to working days in Spectrum Health human resources and took night classes to finish his degree.

As a National Guardsman, Wendt also serves one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer.

He, too, credits the Veteran Explorer Program for giving him a chance.

“It gave me a foot in the door, so I could prove myself and show them I was able to do this,” he said.