Walters stands at the microphone on a pedestal fronted by the seal of the State of New York. He is surrounded by veterans, many wearing American Legion caps. The scene is inside the ornate lobby of the historic state capitol.
Gavin Walters addresses New York state legislators and members of the press on behalf of Vet2Vet, a program providing services in 25 New York counties. Speaking inside the state capitol building, he called for bipartisan efforts to elevate the Division of Veterans' Services to a cabinet department.

Despite physical and mental health challenges stemming from his time in the military, Gavin Walters, MSW ’20, is now thriving as director of a veterans program in two counties in New York state and facilitator of a coalition that covers the entire state. Adelphi’s Hudson Valley Center—and an exceptionally dedicated professor—made a life-changing difference for Walters.

Gavin Walters earned his MSW at Adelphi in 2020. But it’s what he also received at the University that makes his story special.

“Adelphi was the third school I had been to to get a master’s degree,” said Walters, who is director of the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project, also known as Vet2Vet, in New York’s Ulster and Greene counties. “I was feeling like it wasn’t worth the trouble, but I met people at Adelphi who helped me find a path to my purpose in life.”

Walters is an Air Force veteran. When he enlisted in 2003, it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. “I had always wanted to be in the military,” Walters said. But his Air Force career was cut short when he was diagnosed with a seizure disorder after receiving medication he received from the service. He was medically discharged just 10 months after joining. “I was crushed,” he said.

Plan B was a career in law enforcement. Walters got an undergrad degree in criminal justice at Monroe College, despite struggling with headaches and fatigue caused by his illness. He enrolled in two different college programs to get an MSW, intending to work as a social worker within a police department. He dropped out of both because of his health and because he felt disconnected. “I needed more support than I could get sitting there alone at a computer,” he said. “I was ready to give up.”

Adelphi helped him find his way

Juanita Hotchkiss, MSW ’15, coordinator of the Adelphi Online School of Social Work and adjunct professor, gave Walters advice and support that helped lead him to his career.

That changed when he got to Adelphi. Juanita Hotchkiss, MSW ’15, coordinator of the Adelphi Online School of Social Work and adjunct professor, talked to Walters and learned of his military experience and his interest in social work. She suggested he take an internship at a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare facility.

“I thought it wouldn’t be worth my time because I wanted to work at a police department,” Walters said. “But after thinking about the possibilities, I agreed to take the internship. The experience changed my life and my career path. Professor Hotchkiss was the one who gave me the idea to be a social worker who focused on veterans. She knew me better than I knew myself.”

Walters ended up doing an internship with the VA, and he’s been working with veterans ever since he got his MSW. He loves his work. “Helping vets gives my life meaning,” he said.

Walters also credits the hybrid structure of Adelphi’s online MSW program with helping his success. He was at Adelphi’s Hudson Valley Center part of the time, where he found classmates to connect with. “I had people to support me, and that made a difference,” he said.

Helping veterans help themselves

In his role at Vet2Vet, Walters provides a wide range of services and support to veterans in the Hudson Valley. He organizes lunches, community projects and other activities that get veterans out of their homes and with their peers. “We cleaned up the trail around Saugerties Lighthouse on the Hudson River and we have a workshop where veterans can build a kayak,” he said. “It’s not about the boats, of course—it’s about the camaraderie.”

Walters is a big fan of hands-on activities that put veterans together to heal the mind and soul. “If you build it, they will come,” he said. That’s why he founded a nonprofit called Veterans Building Communities in 2018 to help veterans improve their mental health by working on projects around the community with other veterans. The group is on hiatus now, but he brings those same ideas to his work with Vet2Vets. The group has programs like group sessions for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), equine therapy, mindfulness sessions, a writing group and peer counseling.

An MSW committed to the health of veterans

Walters connects veterans with social services, too. “We work with veterans who are homeless, who are suicidal, who have addictions. We connect them with resources and peer advocates to guide them through whatever they need to get through,” Walters said.

As a veteran who has struggled with a life-changing illness for two decades, Walters knows a thing or two about the challenges he sees other vets face. “There have been times when I was in a downward spiral, thinking, ‘I can’t live with this anymore because it’s so painful,’” Walters said. “My mental and physical health were my biggest barriers.”

But he credits the people he met at Adelphi for guiding him through it, and he wants to do the same for others. “Professor Hotchkiss and others made accommodations for me and they believed in me. They helped me make the journey to where I am now. I will be there to help others make their journey. I will be the one a vet can call at 2:00 in the nighttime when they need help.”

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