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Military spouse nonprofits look to shore up operations and join forces for bigger outcomes

Military spouse Janet Sanchez founded Esposas Militares Hispanas USA to help ensure that families with language barriers aren’t left out of programs in the military community. Whatever their needs — scholarships, employment or other issues or questions — the network of about 2,000 volunteers tries connect spouses to others who can help.

In Gear Career was founded by military spouses to help other spouses find work appropriate to their education, experience and aptitude. With local chapters, the aim is to create a “soft landing” space for spouses to make connections.

Mary Reding Smith, one of the founders of the Military Spouse JD Network, was frustrated with the challenges of maintaining a legal career amid the constant moves of the military lifestyle.

Spouses from these and other nonprofits spoke at a recent gathering sponsored by the Military Spouse JD Network and the Association of the U.S. Army.

The common thread? These groups were founded by spouses who saw a need and decided to improve the lives of others in the military community.

About 80 representatives of military family nonprofit groups met in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 26 to talk about shoring up their organizations and improving services.

Nonprofits serve the military community in a variety of ways, from emergency financial assistance to career help. Some have existed for decades. Other fledgling groups are struggling to find their way and fighting burnout from countless hours working to serve others while trying to build their organizations.

Ellyn Dunford, wife of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drew parallels between two successful organizations that were founded some 99 years apart whose founding principles included compassion, promotion of self-reliance, and service to others. She has volunteered for both of the organizations, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and the Semper Fi Fund.

“I bring up these two groups as examples of military spouses acting in good conscience to remedy a need among their own, something that all of you are working on and trying to get a foothold in,” Dunford said. “No one knew how long their organization would last, no one knew how long the needs would be that they were trying to serve, no one knew how large these organizations could possibly grow to be. So the biggest unknown was how would they possibly help all of those that were in need,” she said.

A key element is funding and whether the organization can bring in enough donations to do what’s needed.

For many groups, it makes more sense to partner with other, larger groups to carry out their mission. In some cases, that may mean they don’t need to spend the money and resources to create a separate organization. Josie Beets, president of the Military Spouse JD Network, challenged larger organizations to work more with smaller ones.

This collaboration is important, Ellyn Dunford said.

“How do you leverage the skills of other groups to better execute your mission? How do you help them serve their clients through joint efforts? How do you make sure the whole person or whole family is served by what you do? How do you create more self-sufficient clients and a more successful program and more satisfied staff?” she said.

While charismatic leaders and the backing of celebrities can be helpful, neither of these two organizations started that way, she said.

“They just labored quietly to achieve a very worthy goal.”


Karen Jowers

writes about military consumer issues and other quality-of-life issues. To reach her: kjowers@military @KarenJowers

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