Oak Harbor couple launches fund to support veteran jobseekers

“Whidbey Veterans Jobs-Assistance Program” helps veterans obtain full-time jobs.

Wanting to help local unemployed veterans, Oak Harbor residents and philanthropists George and Sheila Saul opened a fund on July 10 to launch the “Whidbey Veterans Jobs-Assistance Program,” an initiative that helps discharged military members obtain full-time jobs.

“We want to help them get over that last obstacle to get that offer and that job,” George Saul said.

Eligible applicants can receive up to $2,000 per year and a maximum of $4,000 in their lifetime, which will help with last-minute expenses that may help secure the job. Such expenses can be paying for a babysitter to take care of their child during the interview process, or paying for a license or paying this month’s phone bill.

To qualify, candidates must reside on Whidbey Island, be honorably discharged, not have a military ID card, be in the final stages of the job hunt and demonstrate need of financial assistance to secure the job.

However, George Saul said that even if an applicant doesn’t meet all the requirements, they might still be eligible or become eligible as the program gets fine-tuned. For example, he said program managers considered expanding to include military spouses in the future.

“Never say never,” George Saul said. “We didn’t put this in place to see how many people we can say no to. Success is saying yes to lots of people.”

While applying online through the Opportunity Council — which administers the program — candidates will state their need for financial support and explain how it will directly help them secure a job or receive an offer. After a few days, the council will interview the applicants and consult a rubric to determine who gets priority. The Whidbey Community Foundation holds the funds.

The idea for the kickstarter came to the Sauls’ mind about a year ago, George Saul said.

According to data he gathered this past spring, 4.5% of Island County veterans — about 11,000 in total — are unemployed, while the general county population’s unemployment rate is 3.9%. Nationwide and statewide, the rate of unemployment is lower among veterans, with 4.1% of Washington non-veterans and 3.9% of veterans being unemployed, and 3.7% of U.S. non-veterans and 2.6% of veterans without a job.

George Saul said the transition from military to civilian life can also be challenging, and some employers may have negative biases against the military that hold them back from hiring veterans.

“Our motivation isn’t that it’s higher than unemployment at large,” he said. “Generally, we’d like to see half of the people that come to us for assistance get that job.”

Married since 1973, the Sauls moved from Seattle in 2010 to retire on Whidbey Island. Since then, the couple has been actively involved with several local volunteering programs. Sheila volunteers at Coupeville Elementary School and assists with reading, while George volunteers as a caseworker at the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.

They started the jobs-assistance program in memory of their fathers, both World War II veterans. It isn’t the first time they did something in honor of their parents: they endowed a scholarship fund for students pursuing a degree in early childhood education at Skagit Valley College, the “Peg Moy and Sheila Moy Saul Early Childhood Education” scholarship, named after Sheila’s mother, and scholarships to graduating Oak Harbor High School students in honor of George’s father.

“We’re always looking for mechanisms to do something in honor of someone, and our parents often come to mind,” George Saul said.

People interested in contributing to the program can donate through the Whidbey Community Foundation at P.O. Box 1135, Coupeville, WA 98239.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the rate of unemployment is higher among veterans nationwide and statewide. The rate of unemployment is actually lower. We regret the error.