By Jim Hoehn
Mariabel Loo considers her tireless efforts on behalf of homeless Veterans as more than just doing her job.
It’s her passion.
That belief and commitment to her mission, which has earned the respect of her coworkers and the Veterans she assists, also led to Loo’s selection as Employee of the Year at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
Loo has been employed here for 27 years, including the last eight as a HUD-VASH coordinator in homeless programs in the Mental Health division, providing outreach to veterans, community agencies and others in a vulnerable population.
“I think most of our team members approach it as more than a job because it’s not the easiest population to work with, so your heart has to be in it,” said Loo, more familiarly known as Bel.
“You really have to talk about our whole team, because most of us, we do outreach,” she said. “We work Saturdays. Some of us do volunteer work. It’s really not me, it’s the whole team. We’re a very good team. I’m lucky to work on this team.”
Among the many outreach and volunteer programs with which she has worked, Loo has volunteered since 2014 with Mr. Bob’s Under the Bridge Ministry, an outreach serving the homeless community in Milwaukee and surrounding communities.
Loo also collaborated with Milwaukee Vets for Peace and participates in a weekly breakfast outreach for at-risk veterans.
She has participated in numerous late-night ride-alongs with many area police departments and participates in the national point-in-time to connect Veterans with VA.
During a 10-year period, Loo worked at different shelters around Milwaukee in drug and alcohol treatment.The committee
The Rewards & Recognition Committee at Milwaukee VA.
“My belief is that housing is a basic need. That is a stepping stone to getting a job,” Loo said. “It’s really hard to get a job if you sleep outside, you can’t shower and you have no clean clothes. For some people, with housing you can take care of yourself medically much better. Your medication won’t be all over the place. Even in a shelter, people lose their medication.
“Psychiatrically, I think at least you have a bed. You know where to go instead of going and waiting at a shelter and say, ‘What number am I? Do I get a bed tonight?’ So, I think it’s a basic human need. That’s why I like working with housing. I want people to have their basic human needs and it gives them dignity.”
Loo was one of 12 Employee of the Month winners, which made her eligible for the annual award.
“There’s over 4,000 employees in the Milwaukee VA alone, so it’s a huge accomplishment,” said Jerl Johnson, a program analyst in biomed who serves as co-chair of the Rewards and Recognition Committee.
“Each one of the employees here has not just one story, but numerous stories, about ways you have affected people’s lives, and real genuinely,” said Dr. Dan Zomchek, Milwaukee VA Medical Center director, at the Employee of the Year breakfast. “I really believe we have the best mission in the world and it’s because of the heart, I think, in the room that we get to do what we do.”
As with the rest of the team, Loo takes pride in the success of those she serves.
“I remember walking to a park and was on my way out and these two guys were coming into the park and I just said, ‘Is anyone a Veteran?’ This guy looked at me kind of suspiciously and he said, ‘I am, what do you want?’,” Loo said.
“So, I told him about the program and he said, ‘Yeah, people always say that and they never get me anything.'”
“I think the Veteran couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He thought there must be some catch. Once in a while, you get those. I think that’s one of the things that keeps me and our team in this program.”
Barbara Gilbert, Homeless Outreach program manager, has known Loo for about 20 years. She said Loo’s demeanor, combined with her wide-ranging experience, is an asset when dealing with the homeless community.
“She’s soft-spoken, very engaging, but is known to be firm in advocating for Veterans,” Gilbert said. “Identifying their needs, helping them to achieve their goals.”
Loo said she was surprised to receive the Employee of the Year award and does not take it for granted.
“I am honored to be recognized with the other Employees of the Month and I am really humbled that I got picked as Employee of the Year,” Loo said. “Everyone has great contributions to the VA mission.”
By Jim Hoehn