Ernest Knight, a third-generation veteran who served in the U.S. Army, was presented with a 2021 Toyota 4Runner from Hiring Our Heroes during a ceremony on March 30, 2021, at the DeLuca Toyota dealership in Ocala, Florida.
Knight was awarded the vehicle as a result of his winning entry into the annual Committed to America’s Heroes sweepstakes conducted late last year. The sweepstakes was open to all active duty, reserve and guard members, veterans, and military spouses, and more than 85,000 entries were received.
“I am really grateful and it makes me so excited to know that I won a Toyota. It’s such an amazing feeling that I don’t even have the words to describe how I feel,” Knight said.
I Got the Help I Needed From the VA’s Voc-Rehab Program
Originally from Portsmouth, Virginia, Knight, 31, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2013 and worked as a food service specialist. While deployed to Kuwait during Operation Enduring Freedom, Knight suffered an injury and was honorably discharged at the rank of specialist in 2015.
“My plan was to stay in and retire with the military, but being injured changed my course. So, I had to figure out what I was going to do,” Knight said.
Knight described his military transition as difficult.
With help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veteran Readiness and Employment program in Salem, Virginia, Knight received support to guide him during his military transition. The program paid his college tuition and Knight went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in psychology from Radford University.
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Knight moved to Florida. He didn’t know anyone that lived there, but he wanted to live in a warmer climate. Ocala, Florida gave him what he was looking for.
Making Other People Happy, Makes Me Happy
In many ways, Knight remains in transition.
He got engaged to his fiancé, Julio on July 4, 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their wedding plans have been put on hold.
Using his GI Bill benefit, Knight completed his master’s degree in criminal justice with an emphasis in critical incident management from Saint Leo University in December 2020. While his famed diploma hangs in his home, the graduation ceremony has been pushed back until May 2021.
Knight wants to work at a federal agency, like FEMA, TSA, the VA, or Homeland Security, but he hasn’t been able to secure federal employment. His application is in the system. He is waiting for an interview.
“One [job] that I’m particularly interested in is educational specialist, especially with the Army. I feel like I can really be a benefit there,” he said. “I’ve been in the Army so I can relate with other soldiers and veterans in regards to helping them with pursuing a career or even education.”
In the meantime, Knight is a Zumba instructor at a local sports club.
“I love Zumba mainly because I love dancing,” he said. “It’s all about having fun and there’s no mistakes in Zumba — at least that’s what I tell my students. It’s amazing how much you can tone your body and have a good time while doing it.”
Zumba provides Knight with opportunities to make a positive impact in his community.
“I help brighten their lives, even if it’s just for one hour,” he said. “Making other people happy, makes me happy.”
Who Gives Away a Car?
Knight was up late one night scrolling through his inbox when he saw an email from the VA about Hiring Our Heroes’ Committed to America’s Heroes sweepstakes. He kept scrolling.
“I was like, ‘No, that’s not real.’ Who gives away a car?” Knight said.
Later, Knight saw the sweepstake announcement in another email from the VA. This time, he stopped and doubtfully entered the sweepstakes.
“I remember I told my fiancé that I doubt I’m going to get it because it will never happen. And surprisingly, it happened,” Knight said.
This is the third time that Hiring Our Heroes has awarded a Toyota to a member of the military community.
“Hiring Our Heroes is proudly celebrating its tenth year of impact. Our success has been dependent upon the strength of public-private partnerships with organizations such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and Toyota. We are thrilled to present a new vehicle to Ernest Knight, a third-generation veteran, who proudly served in the U.S. Army,” said Adam Rocke, Senior Director of Events and Programs at Hiring Our Heroes during the March 30 vehicle presentation at the DeLuca Toyota dealership.
Since 2011 Toyota has partnered with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes on the Personal Branding Initiative to address the issue of unemployment among veterans, transitioning service members and military spouses by helping more than 100,000 job seekers translate their military skills, volunteer experiences and expertise into meaningful employment. Through the development of first-of-their-kind, free online personal branding tools – ResumeEngine.org for veterans and transitioning service members and MyCareerSpark.org for military spouses – Toyota continues to demonstrate its ongoing commitment to help the military community successfully integrate into the American workforce.
“Hiring Our Heroes and Toyota are working together to provide an opportunity for military families by offering valuable career development and training, online resources, and education. At DeLuca Toyota, we’ve been serving the North Central Florida community since 1978 and we’ve always taken an active role in supporting the community. We have several staff members that are veterans who have served our country. We are thrilled that this year’s sweepstakes winner is from the Ocala, Florida area,” said Frank DeLuca, owner and president of DeLuca Toyota.
Since winning the Committed to America’s Heroes sweepstakes, Knight has been learning about Hiring Our Heroes and its programs.
“To see that there’s an organization that goes out of their way to try to help veterans, I think, is a truly amazing thing and I’m really grateful for that,” Knight said.