Livingston County resident Wendy Macey said she never realized there were so many people out there just like her — others who understood her unique issues, struggles and concerns from a female perspective.
“Most people, when they think of a veteran, they think of a man,” she said.
Macey served in Operation Desert Shield during the Persian Gulf War in 1990. She joined the U.S. Air Force straight out of high school, following in family footsteps first set by her grandfather, several uncles and her father.
When she moved back to Livingston County from the Kalamazoo area a year-and-a-half ago, Macey needed some assistance. Her mother put her in touch with Women Supporting Women Veterans.
“I didn’t have many things, material-wise, to fill an apartment,” she explained. “They helped me find people who were giving things away. … That was kind of my first experience with them.”
Since then, Women Supporting Women Veterans has introduced Macey to other females in the area who served in the military through its Veteran Sisters in Service program, allowing the former servicemembers to bond and support one another through their shared experiences.
“They can relate to me,” she said. “I never realized that before. … It’s easier for a woman to relate to another woman. Being around another woman, it kind of takes the pressure off.”
Established four years ago by a core group of local residents, Women Supporting Women Veterans’ mission is to provide aid, education and comfort to women returning home from military service.
The group operates on a shoestring budget, with its annual fundraising event, the Hat and Scarf Auction, scheduled for Thursday at the Howell Elks Club in Genoa Township, being a primary source of revenue.
“This will be our third annual (auction), and basically it’s our only fundraiser,” said Arlene Callaghan, executive director of Women Supporting Women Veterans.
The group collects mostly handmade hats and scarves, which will be auctioned off between 5:30-9 p.m. at the Elks Club. Livingston County Undersheriff Mike Murphy will return for his third year as auctioneer.
“He is a hoot. He’ll try on all the hats and scarves,” Callaghan said. “We love Mike.”
Food for the event will again be provided by The Great Foodini, local chef Renee Chodkowski.
“The meal is always wonderful,” Callaghan said.
She added that the theme of the meal this year is “It’s Not Your MRE,” and the group polled its veterans on the most popular MRE (a self-contained military field ration that stands for Meal Ready to Eat) to come up with this year’s entree. The winner: beef
“We’re going to do a nice little riff on that,” Chodkowski said, adding that in addition to the beef stroganoff, the menu will include a seasonal fall salad and pumpkin dessert.
This will be the third year Chodkowski has prepared the meal for the auction. She said not only is Women Supporting Women Veterans a good cause, but the group’s mission has a special meaning for her personally. Her daughter has served in the U.S. Army for more than 12 years, and Chodkowski said the sergeant is expected to return home from Afghanistan by Thanksgiving.
“That idea for (the Hat and Scarf Auction) came up a few years ago, and it went over so well,” said Women Supporting Women Veterans Executive Committee member Carol Johnson. “Last year, we had about 45 or 50 people, I think. We usually set for about 60.”
Callaghan estimated that the auction raised roughly $800 in 2013. Other monetary support for the group comes by way of donations from businesses and residents.
“Otherwise, it’s basically $10 here or $10 there,” Callaghan said. “We’re very frugal.”
However, despite limited funds, Women Supporting Women Veterans is able to use every single dollar available to assist veterans in finding the help they need.
FINDING A CAUSE
While the annual auction is held around Veterans Day each year by design, Callaghan said it was also Veterans Day that brought the idea behind forming Women Supporting Women Veterans to light.
“I’ll tell you the real story: There were four of us women sitting around drinking margaritas one day, and we said, ‘Veterans Day is coming up. Men get all the attention on Veterans Day. We should do something for the women.’ ” she said.
The initial idea was to hold a party celebrating women veterans, but when the group sought input from retired Michigan National Guard Brig. Gen. Carol Ann Fausone, they realized they needed to change direction.
“She said, ‘No, that’s not what they need,’ ” Callaghan said. “OK. What do they need? She said they needed education. They needed peer support. They needed information on where to get their benefits. We had to regroup.”
Regroup they did, organizing a successful daylong workshop in Hartland Township that included information booths; speakers such as U.S. Rep Mike Rogers, R-Howell, and state Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township; mentoring for post-traumatic stress disorder; and employment education from Michigan Works!
The first year of the workshop was a rousing success, but interest as well as attendance significantly dwindled the second year.
“We needed to step back and see how better we could spend the limited money we had,” Callaghan said.
FOCUSING ITS MISSION
Women Supporting Women Veterans retooled its mission to a more personal and interconnected approach to helping female veterans that it still uses today.
“Some of our female veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, some are dealing with military sexual trauma, and they need some extra help sometimes,” Johnson said. “Women Serving Women Veterans tries to find the services they need.”
Those services can be wide-ranging — from women in need of food and shelter to assistance getting their veterans’ benefits.
“There’s a lot of resources out there, but they don’t know where they are,” Callaghan said.
“A lot of female veterans won’t step forward as far as obtaining their benefits. They’re a little quieter sometimes,” Johnson said.
They may approach situations in a different manner because they may be accustomed to be the caregiver instead of the person receiving the care, Johnson noted. Or, if they’re caring for children, they may have a difficult time being able to get to scheduled appointments, she added.
“Women are different. There’s no question about it,” Callaghan said. “That doesn’t mean they’re better or worse. They’re just different.”
Counseling also plays a big role in the work of the group, through the monthly peer-to-peer support held at the 2/42 Community Center in Genoa Township that offers one-on-one help or the Veteran Sisters in Service group program, which gathers at a home on a monthly basis to talk, share and eat.
“They just can’t talk to anyone about their experiences because non-veterans just don’t understand or are judgmental,” Callaghan said. “The women truly appreciate having a group they can talk to.”
Macey described the work of Women Supporting Women Veterans as “very important.”
“There’s two other therapies that they did pilot programs for that were absolutely wonderful,” she said. “The first was art therapy, and the other one was equine therapy. It helps us to deal with what we went through while we were in.”
Callaghan said Fausone is still highly utilized as a resource and guide.
“She’s my mentor,” Callaghan said. “We call her all the time to say, ‘How do we do this?’ ”
However, Macey said it’s Callaghan who has been a hero for her.
“She’s a very modest women,” Macey said. “She does not really know how much she helps us, women veterans. … Support-wise, it’s been a good thing, especially for me.”
Funds may be limited, but Callaghan said as long as there is a female veteran out there who needs a helping hand, that veteran will always have a place to turn toward with Women Supporting Women Veterans.
“We try to seek them out and help them whenever we can” Johnson said.
“There’s always room for more,” she added.
Contact Daily Press & Argus features editor Christopher Nagy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AT A GLANCE
- Women Serving Women Veterans holds its annual Hat and Scarf Auction from 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday at the Howell Elks Club, east of Howell at 2830 E. Grand River Ave. in Genoa Township. Hats and scarves are donated and sold at auction with auctioneer Livingston County Undersheriff Mike Murphy. Food will be provided by Renee Chodkowski, aka The Great Foodini. Tickets for the auction are $10 for veterans; $20 for others. Tickets are available on the Web at http://www.wswvets.org or by calling Arlene Callaghan at 810-599-6014.
- Women Supporting Women Veterans resources are used in providing education on available services, support and peer-to-peer mentoring, and achieving suitable housing and jobs. For more information, visit http://www.wswvets.org.
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