Bobbi Stewart, an Iowa farm girl, former Army medical lab technician and prison supervisor, is passionate about helping others, especially her fellow veterans.

That is why officials at the Veterans One Stop in Waco chose her to become the center’s fifth programs director in its seven years of operation.

Stewart, 38, has been on the job a couple of weeks and already is devising ways to increase the One Stop’s 100-member corps of volunteers and to extend its reach into the veterans community and beyond.

While the Veterans One Stop has served veterans since 2012, Stewart and her supervisor, Dana LaFayette, said they frequently are surprised, and disappointed, when they hear veterans and others say they are not familiar with the operation. It moved to its current location, a building owned by the Heart of Texas Region MHMR at 2010 La Salle Ave., in 2016.

The One Stop Center is aptly named, providing mental health services, case managers, employment counseling, a food pantry, a clothes closet to dress veterans up for job interviews, a laundry, showers, breakfast and lunch on Wednesdays, a gym and media and computer rooms.

It also recently started a community garden behind the building, which will provide food and a therapeutic setting for veterans who like to get their hands dirty.

LaFayette, director of Veterans Behavioral Justice and Addiction Services for the Heart of Texas MHMR, and Steve Hernandez, McLennan County veterans service officer, interviewed a number of candidates for the position before choosing Stewart.

“What set her apart was her passion, her enthusiasm, and really being a veteran who has walked their pathway and had their experiences,” LaFayette said. “It was also her desire to turn around and help the veteran community. That is what set her apart from other candidates we talked to.”

Hernandez said it was especially important to him to hire a veteran for the job. Stewart’s predecessor, DeLisa Russell, was not a veteran.

“The previous four directors have come with their own strengths and attributes,” Hernandez said. “This time around, we are really glad that we have been able to get a veteran who seems genuinely concerned for the veterans community. Not that the others weren’t, but we want to evolve in a new direction.”

Stewart grew up on a farm in southern Iowa, an only child who helped her father work 500 acres of hay and 100 head of cattle. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, named her after his cousin, a World War II veteran.

“I was supposed to be a boy and I was worked as a boy, hence the name Bobbi,” Stewart said with a grin.

Two days after she graduated from high school, Stewart was at Army boot camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After boot camp, she trained as a combat medic and a medical lab technician at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. In 2000, she worked as a hospital lab technician at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

Stewart left active duty, went into the National Guard and got a job in a hospital lab in Rolla, Missouri. She married in 2005 and came with her husband, whom she met in the Army, to Fort Hood. They divorced in 2009, and Stewart has two children, Edward, 12, and Elias, 3, who live with her in Gatesville.

Stewart was a corrections sergeant with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Gatesville from 2008 to March, where she worked in both men’s and women’s prison units, managed 54 officers and 2,000 inmates. She got her bachelor’s degree in psychology during her time with the prison system and is planning to get a master’s in psychology.

Stewart said she was ready for a change in careers because of what she describes as the “new breed” of inmates, who she says are not interested in bettering themselves but are concerned more about what they can get, when they can get it and who they can scam.

“I decided I wanted to help people,” she said. “I wasn’t helping people where I was at. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. I want to be able to talk to a population of people where I can sit down and ask them, ‘What do you want to do? How do you want to get there?’ I want to make a difference in somebody’s path.”

One Stop officials, including Hernandez, who has an office there, want to put more emphasis on mental health issues that are causing about 20 veterans nationwide to take their own lives each day. That is a growing concern that needs more attention, they said.

“They are all coming here for something,” LaFayette said. “They can choose to come here and we encourage them to do so. But once they do, we do what we can to help inspire hope for them and help them walk the pathway to make the changes they need to make.”

Hernandez also wants to try to get more veterans service organizations involved in the One Stop and work with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials to make sure the Doris Miller VA Medical Center stays open and viable as an effective resource for mental health treatment.

Stewart said she is excited about helping veterans and guiding them to services that are available.

“This building and the services provided here are blessings because this isn’t the three-story-get-lost-in-the-maze VA,” she said. “You come here for help, and the peers here are able to relate. If someone comes here and says I need help, the volunteers are able to speak to the veterans and pinpoint what help they need and put them with the right person. They don’t get caught up in red tape or lost in the maze. They have somebody here to talk to, which is sometimes all a veteran needs or wants.”

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