VHA resident turned employee breaks the mold

The 27-year-old has spent most of his career serving families in the same low-income neighborhood he grew up in

Damien Wheeler spent first through 12th grade living in Skyline Crest, a subsidized housing neighborhood comprising duplexes and fourplexes in central Vancouver, with his mom, twin brother, sister and later his stepdad. A rental voucher and other public support kept the family afloat. 

“My mom, she did the best she could do and we all understood that,” Wheeler said. “She just told us to graduate and all of us did.”

Shown here (from left) is Shawn Hamburg and Damien Wheeler celebrating Wheeler's graduation from Fort Vancouver High School in 2012. Photo courtesy Vancouver Housing Authority
Shown here (from left) is Shawn Hamburg and Damien Wheeler celebrating Wheeler’s graduation from Fort Vancouver High School in 2012. Photo courtesy Vancouver Housing Authority

The 27-year-old has spent most of his career serving families in the same low-income neighborhood he grew up in. Wheeler worked at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington, his alma mater Fort Vancouver High School and most recently served as a liaison at Bridgeview Resource Center. 

“I just think he’s given back as much as was ever given to him,” said Sharon Linn.

Linn, who’s worked for Vancouver Housing Authority for 22 years, was part of a team helping Skyline Crest families like the Wheelers. She made sure they had food for Thanksgiving, gifts for Christmas and other supports needed to succeed. 

Years later, Wheeler and Linn worked on similar projects together as coworkers at Bridgeview: organizing National Night Out, gathering holiday gifts and school supplies for kids and putting together fresh food boxes with LULAC. 

Wheeler recently left his role at Bridgeview to work as an EMT with AMR and aims to someday become a local firefighter. He credits much of his success to support and opportunities he was offered as a kid. 

When he was 10, Wheeler began working with a mentor through the Rise & Stars Community Center (which was located where Caples Terrace is today). He was paired with VHA employee Shawn Hamburg, who worked in the construction and maintenance office just steps from Wheeler’s home.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or what I was capable of,” Wheeler said.

Damien Wheeler grew up in subsidized housing through Vancouver Housing Authority and went on to become a VHA employee. Photo courtesy Vancouver Housing Authority
Damien Wheeler grew up in subsidized housing through Vancouver Housing Authority and went on to become a VHA employee. Photo courtesy Vancouver Housing Authority

The pair met after school to talk for hours or – if Wheeler’s homework was done – play basketball or drive around town. They remain friends to this day. 

Hamburg noted that because Wheeler received help as a child, he went on to help dozens of at-risk youth. He’s worked with teens who were struggling to graduate high school or struggling to envision themselves getting into college.

“There’s something about having that one-on-one with an adult,” Hamburg said. 

Having housing support and mentorship truly made all the difference for Wheeler to break the cycle of poverty for his family, said Jodi Freydenfeldt, Bridgeview’s volunteer and engagement supervisor.

“Despite the challenges that Damien had he’s been able to rise above,” she said.

Sometimes, Freydenfeldt said, when people are low income, the bar gets set low. Wheeler set the bar high, always looking forward to his next step – whether that was buying his first home, completing EMT school or joining a nonprofit board. Along the way, he’s gotten advice and encouragement. As a giver and receiver of help, Wheeler knows firsthand what a difference it can make. 

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