Dennis Willard gathers his tools for his next repair in Monroe on Oct. 29. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Dennis Willard gathers his tools for his next repair in Monroe on Oct. 29. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Looking for his ‘last job,’ veteran found new work, new life

U.S. Navy veteran Dennis Willard, once homeless, now works for the nonprofit that helped him.

EVERETT — When Dennis Willard moved into his own apartment, the Navy veteran was relieved.

After years of living in a tent with his cat, Sprick, he had finally found stability.

Roughly a year later, Willard now works for the nonprofit that found him housing.

“I was looking for my last job,” Willard said. “I’m not looking for a paycheck. I’m looking for something that I can retire from and something that means something.”

When Willard entered HopeWorks Social Enterprises’ career training program, he just needed some help re-entering the workforce. The program is open to anyone but geared toward people who were previously homeless. Many of the trainees, including Willard, are already housed through Housing Hope when they enter the roughly three-month program.

Willard is a skilled carpenter who received a humanitarian medal as a Seabee in the Navy. He traveled the world as part of the Navy’s Construction Battalion, helping with projects like hospitals and drug rehabilitation centers.

In the late 1990s, the Navy brought Willard to Everett. He considered the city close enough to his small Oregon hometown and remembered driving through on his way to snowboard. Willard bought a house and stayed.

He left the Navy in 2001 and later worked at a vinyl plant for many years, helping manufacture windows and doors. When another company bought out his employer in 2014, though, Willard lost his job. He lost his house the following year, too.

“I ended up being homeless for the first time in my life,” Willard said.

The Navy veteran lived in a tent with his cat for four years. He avoided shelters, because they don’t allow pets and said he would rather be unhoused than lose Sprick.

“That cat means everything to me,” Willard said.

When the pair moved to a Housing Hope property in 2019, Sprick became classified as a companion animal. A year later, Willard started the job training program.

Dennis Willard gathers keys for his next repair in Monroe on Oct. 29. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Dennis Willard gathers keys for his next repair in Monroe on Oct. 29. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

HopeWorks owns and operates several businesses that it uses as part of its job training program. Willard chose to complete his internship at Renew Home & Decor, a consignment store in Everett that sells gently used furniture.

“We miss him,” said Kandi Garber, director of Renew Home & Decor, who oversees the job training program.

Garber said the Navy veteran built new legs for couches, made table leaves and repaired rocking chairs. Garber described Willard as industrious and enterprising — the type of person who can fix anything with few resources.

“I saw something that was broken and I was like, ‘Oh, I can fix that,’” Willard said of his internship at Renew. “I started tinkering with it and was able to get it back on the floor for sale.”

Dennis Willard, a Navy veteran, became homeless in 2014 and began job training through HopeWorks at Renew Home and Decor. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Dennis Willard, a Navy veteran, became homeless in 2014 and began job training through HopeWorks at Renew Home and Decor. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Willard graduated from the HopeWorks program and now works for Housing Hope, where he was recently promoted to a maintenance technician. He fixes issues for residents at the nonprofit’s properties.

“The residents love me,” Willard said.

In his spare time, Willard keeps busy with woodworking projects, like building loft beds, chess sets, cutting boards and planter boxes. Renew Home & Decor sells some of his work.

“I do this on the side as my hobby and I have a job that I like to go to,” Willard said. “It’s a good company.”

Katie Hayes: katie.hayes@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.

Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.

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