What Blue Star Families Means to Us #Giving Tuesday

On the second morning of our honeymoon, as Neal and I sipped coffee in our bathrobes on the veranda of our B&B in Charleston, SC, I confessed to him that I hated my job. It had become indisputably clear that I was terrible at selling gym memberships, which was the first bullet point in my job description. Neal mulled this over for a second and then asked, “What do you want to do?” It wasn’t said in a judgemental or demeaning tone. He truly wanted to know what would make me happy. “I think I want to be a massage therapist. I want to go to massage school,” I answered. He flashed his trademark Neal smile and said, “Well, there you go, then.” One month later, I was enrolled in massage school.

When Neal was offered the opportunity to move from a Reservist position to active duty with the Active Guard/Reserve program, there were 2 stipulations: we had to move to Macon, Georgia by the middle of May, and he would be deployed for one year to Iraq within 6 months of the move. We readily agreed knowing that this door, which had been opened so unexpectedly, would shut without any guarantee of it opening again. We arrived home from a vacation in Hawaii at 4 AM and at 7 AM, the moving truck arrived to take all of our worldly possessions south.

Prior to that first move, as the wife of a Reservist, most of our challenges were centered around being apart, from deployments, to annual training and the drill weekends each month. I became the FRG (Family Readiness Group) Leader, simply because no one had expressed any interest in the position. I ran fundraisers for unit events and I called to check on spouses when the Servicemember was deployed with a different unit. I was involved, but I wasn’t immersed in the military culture. My knowledge was limited to what I had experienced since meeting and marrying Neal.

Our first PCS changed everything.

With a house full of boxes and the realization that my parents weren’t just down the road, I sat down and cried. Neal went to work, met people, made friends, and had conversations throughout the day. I tried to figure out how my Kentucky massage therapy license would transfer to Georgia and wondered where I would work if my clients didn’t have a military ID to get into base housing where we lived, all while emptying box after box in our carport. I was suffocating under the sheer weight of chaos and loneliness. I put on the brave face for Neal as he relayed the ups and downs of his day, but I wanted to scream, “Take me home! I can’t do this, I’m not cut out for this life. I want to go back to my friends and family and our little house on the cul-de-sac with the pergola and the clematis!” Six months later, he deployed to Iraq and I did go home. But it didn’t feel like home. Now I was a visitor who had missed out on birthdays, births, weddings, and funerals. Everyone was glad to see me, but they also knew I couldn’t stay. For the first time in my life, I felt like a flower, ripped from the stem and stuck in a vase. No longer rooted to anything, eventually I would wither.

It feels a little melodramatic to even write that from where I sit now, but it is exactly how I felt back then. I was 32 years old and had never been away from home for more than a few months. I went to college next door to my hometown, along with most of my closest high school friends. As it was in 1989, so it was in 2009. Sitting on the back porch of our house on Robins AFB, huddled around a fire pit with new friends, we rang in 2011. Neal would be leaving in a few weeks for Iraq. I had no job and no job prospects. We had made friends – some from the base and some from Neal’s work – but it was the first time I had ever felt depressed. Nothing was as I had imagined it would be.

Over the years, we’ve gotten better at this military family thing. I can make a new friend in 4 minutes flat (Blue can do it in 3) and I’ve finally come to accept that most businesses don’t want to hire someone just to lose them again in 24 months. I don’t blame them – that’s a lot of time and energy to invest in someone just to have to start all over again with someone new. I know because we do it all the time. It’s emotionally exhausting. I conceded that my life would revolve around making sure that Neal didn’t have to worry about anything at home. Whether he wanted to help with the chores or not, everything would get done – from packing and unpacking when we move, to daily tasks like cleaning the litterbox and cooking meals. He only had to focus on work and spending time together as a family. And on most days, that has been enough for me. But there have certainly been times in the past 8 years when I shake my fist and shout, “This doesn’t have to be so damn hard!”

Like when we moved to Fort Lee, VA, when Blue was 3 months old because Neal was picked up for Captain’s Career Course. On-post housing had a wait list so we leased a 3-bedroom apartment behind a strip mall. An hour after the movers had emptied the truck into every room of that apartment, the housing office called to say they had a house for us.

Like when I couldn’t get a spot in the Child Development Center at Ft. Knox because all of the slots were full, which meant I couldn’t go to the gym for an hour each day because the gym had no childcare.

Like when we were stationed on a National Guard post and not only was there no housing, but there was no way to meet other military families outside of the unit.

Like when the contract for our dental care was switched to a provider who reimbursed pennies on the dollar and all of the good dentists stopped accepting Tricare because they have to make a living, too.

Like when we were stationed in Southern California and the first time we went out as a family, we paid $12 in parking and $75 for a barely palatable lunch.

This is not a list of complaints, these are the challenges that we encounter constantly. But we have grown resilient and resourceful. We take a deep breath, pour a glass of wine, and figure out how to solve the problem.

We loved that little apartment because in the strip mall was a grocery store and an Italian restaurant, which made pizza that we still talk about to this day.

At Fort Knox, I joined a group of moms who worked out on a playground while the kids played. Sometimes wrangling kids back onto the playground was part of the workout. I took that idea with me to Fort Leavenworth and implemented it there, because we weren’t going to let a lack of childcare keep us from exercising.

I met my neighbors in Pennsylvania and then took a job writing for the local magazine so I could meet even more. And sometimes they turned out to be fellow military families.

I wrote letters to our Congressmen and women about the dental insurance situation and rejoiced when I found a phenomenal dentist with military ties and an office just 40 minutes from our house. Some of my friends were driving an hour each way.

And in the last few months before we were due to leave Pennsylvania, I met Joanna. A spouse in our unit suggested we meet at Joanna’s coffee shop for breakfast and some adult conversation. During a lull, Joanna sat with us and we chatted about living in Pennsylvania, military life, and her new position with Blue Star Families. “OH! They do the Blue Star Museums every summer! We love those people,” I exclaimed. Joanna laughed, “Yes! And we are doing a new thing this summer called Blue Star Parks!”

And that is how I came to join the Blue Star Families network (which is to say I went on the website and entered my information – which is free and open to all military families) and continue to be indebted for the ways they are improving our quality of life everyday. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to sit in one of their staff meetings. What ideas get written on the board? Which ones get tossed out? It feels like every week they have devised a new way to make life a little easier, make it a little more enjoyable.

Yep, making new friends every 24 months is draining, but what if you could do it around a table with a Starbucks latte in your hand? The Starbucks Neighborhood stores commit to holding Coffee and Talk events for military families.

Yes, sometimes we get stationed in exotic (read: expensive) places and after each little expense is raised, there’s very little left for exploring the area where we live. Blue Star Museums, Parks, Theatres and their partnership with Disney ensure we can enjoy the same opportunities as residents whose pay more accurately reflects the cost of living for that area.

Absolutely, it would be amazing if every spouse who wanted to work outside of the home was given that chance. Blue Star Families Careers Center not only actively partners with businesses who have voiced an interest in hiring military spouses, but also provides career coaching, training, and mentorship.

And if you want to work outside of the home, what a blessing it would be to have access to reliable and affordable child care close to base housing. Blue Star Families is working on that, too.

They also see the need for an improvement in access to mental healthcare – for the entire family – and providing more tools for caregivers. There are a lot of moving pieces when you are talking about a military family, regardless of the branch of service, regardless of the rank or where they live. Blue Star Families wants to address it all.

But they aren’t going it alone.

One of the reasons, I think, they are so successful is because Blue Star Families is always on the lookout for new partnerships. Starbucks, Disney, National Endowment for the Arts, National Parks Service, Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Academy of US Veterans, Ebates, CSX, USAA, The Boeing Company and so. many. more. Those are just the ones I saw in a quick scroll through their Facebook page. They are consistently reaching out, daily, to close the gap between military families and the civilian communities where they live and work. When I had thrown my hands in the air and decided the divide was too wide, they decided to build a bridge, initiative by initiative. They must do at least 3 impossible things before breakfast each day.

We all have a story…a difficulty that has lessened because an organization exists to address it. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, the American Heart Association, The Ronald McDonald House, St. Jude’s, United Way, American Red Cross, Make-a-Wish Foundation, Girls on the Run, World Wildlife Foundation, Doctors Without Borders…and on…and on…and on. We must support the organizations that touch our lives directly and, if we can, choose one or two that touch the ones we love.

Blue Star Families is the one I choose and that is why I support them today, on Giving Tuesday. I want to do everything I can to further their work, their mission of helping military families all over the world. When I look into the eyes of a newly married military spouse or a Servicemember who is leaving his/her family for another deployment, I want to be able to say that we are doing everything we can to support them. And that takes money. Blue Star Families has an excellent track record of putting it to good use.

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Hanging out at the Skirball Cultural Center, a Blue Star Museum, over the summer.

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When It’s More Than a Cup of Coffee

I’m not going to sugarcoat it…the week leading up to Veterans Day was pretty brutal in Southern California. It began with a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks (about 90 minutes up the 101 from us), which was carried out by a decorated former Marine with PTSD. Before the first funeral could be held, a spark from a fire in Malibu jumped the 101 and scorched a wide swath through the same region. All the while, the Camp Fire absolutely leveled Paradise, California and took dozens of lives in the process. Although our home on the south side of Los Angeles was never in any danger, the air quality took a hit as the smoke hung ominously between us and Catalina Island. It blotted out the sun and the ocean seemed to glow with shades of yellow and orange. Simultaneously beautiful and devastating. We weren’t impacted, but we were definitely affected.

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So, when the box arrived from Blue Star Families in the middle of the week – a volunteers’ kit with buttons to hand out at Starbucks on Veterans Day, I was filled with a sense of dread. The death toll north of us was climbing daily and I was supposed to hand out buttons to people buying coffee and thank them for supporting military families? I hadn’t really laughed in a week. The last thing I wanted to do was half-ass something for Blue Star Families, an organization that has given our family more than we could ever give back. But I had no idea how I was going to pull out of my funk enough to be convincing. I set the entire box to the side and decided I would worry about it later.

When I woke Sunday morning, I was no more cheery than when I went to bed on Saturday night, but I put on the t-shirt from the box. The front of the t-shirt read ” It’s more than a cup of coffee.” The back proclaimed, “It’s all about communities.” The Blue Star Families and Starbucks logos almost seemed to be holding hands. I felt a little better. I picked up the bag of buttons and started walking out of the neighborhood, to the Starbucks across the street (where we all go because it’s so dang convenient). When I entered the store, I asked to see the store manager and when I introduced myself, her entire face lit up.

“Thank you so much for doing this,” JayIssa said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

I felt the some of the week’s burdens let loose and float away.

“Me, too. Thank you so much for supporting military families. It means everything.”

The lunch rush began and 2 of my neighbors, Ashley and Candace, joined me. We distributed the buttons while mentioning that if they purchased a tall brewed coffee that day, 15 cents from each cup would benefit Blue Star Families. We also let Servicemembers and their families know that Starbucks was offering them a free, tall cup of brewed coffee to celebrate and honor their service. I certainly wasn’t at the top of my game, but with each smile, with each thank you, with each proclamation of “Happy Veterans Day”, the load seemed lighter. We were all neighbors and we were gathered at our Neighborhood Starbucks. It was about the coffee and it was about communities.

When we ran out of buttons, we chatted a bit more with JayIssa, who is eager to partner with and support the military community. She showed us the postcards that are available for customers to write notes to Servicemembers who are deployed or injured and the gift cards that were available for purchase, which also benefit military families.

She mentioned future possibilities like providing coffee and baristas for military events. Her passion for linking civilian and military communities is exciting. JayIssa’s offer to provide her store and staff as a way to do that is a substantial commitment to supporting military families.

Finding the places where civilian and military communities intersect and looking for ways to broaden that overlap is one of the many strengths of Blue Star Families. But they also work diligently to improve the quality of our lives, including sharing data results from the Annual Military Lifestyle Survey (which I completed last spring) with Congressmen and women so they have a better understanding of our challenges and ways in which laws can be crafted to address those challenges. They also partner with the National Endowment for the Arts to host Blue Star Museums every year and the National Parks Service to provide the America the Beautiful Park Pass. Their partnership with Disney has allowed us to visit Disneyland FOUR times this year, which would be out of our price range otherwise since every little thing costs more in Southern California, but Neal’s income doesn’t reflect that steep increase in the cost of living. We have not yet taken advantage of Blue Star Theatres, but as soon as the holidays have passed and life calms down a bit, we will get tickets for a children’s play that Blue has been asking to see. But they also provide support in other ways, like the Caregivers programs, which are so important for military spouses who have become caregivers for one reason or another. They truly address all of the challenges that come with serving our country.

There’s no doubt that of all of the military focused, non-profit organizations out there (and there are a lot), Blue Star Families is the one that we feel most directly impacts and improves our daily life. Because of that, we are happy to support their #GivingTuesday challenge on Tuesday, November 27th. This actually links to Ashley’s Facebook event so if you are having problems viewing or donating, please let me know and we’ll fix that. The funds raised on Facebook will be matched by Facebook and PayPal so your donation is actually doubled! And it directly benefits military families through the work Blue Star Families does on our behalf everyday. Funds raised will create more programs like Blue Star Museums, Blue Star Books, Blue Star Parks, and Blue Star Theatres – all of which are available to the entire family, not just the Servicemember. If you are going to give on Tuesday, this is a great organization to give to!

Things have started to calm down a bit around here. Blue and I took my mom to Santa Barbara yesterday, straight up the 405 to the 101 and although you can still see where fire suppressant was dropped by helicopters to protect the towns, the air has mostly cleared and it’s business as usual. The cloud has lifted, it’s once again sunny in SoCal and we are grabbing a coffee from our Neighborhood Starbucks on the way to the beach today!