Army Sergeant First Class Wade Mitcheltree Receives ELAN-Controlled Custom Smart Home from the Gary Sinise Foundation

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Gary Sinise Foundation

PETALUMA, CALIFORNIA, February 6, 2018 — During his second tour in Afghanistan in 2012, U.S. Army SFC Wade Mitcheltree was severely injured by an IED, resulting in the loss of both his legs and his right arm below the elbow. When Gary Sinise Foundation’s R.I.S.E. program (Restoring Independence, Supporting Empowerment) learned of Mitcheltree’s bravery, they awarded him a brand new specially adapted smart-home in Tigard, Oregon, that allows him to independently manage day-to-day tasks with ease.

Randy Reagan of Quadrant Systems, the integration firm that managed the project’ technology integration, knew that an ELAN Entertainment and Control System was the best smart home platform for Mitcheltree and his family. “ELAN is by far the most intuitive control system out there,” Reagan said. “It’s very simple for the homeowner to understand how to use it without having an expert show them. The icons are large, and the lighting controls are laid out on the touch panel the same way they are on the keypads on the wall. It’s perfect for Wade, his wife, and his two sons.”

Reagan built the home’s system around an ELAN gSC10 controller, with an ELAN g1 for secondary control and an ELAN S86A for audio distribution. Multiple ELAN touch panels and remotes were integrated throughout the two-story residence so that the Mitcheltree family can access the platform from any room of the house at any time. With just the tap on a screen, the family can manage the home’s audio, video, lighting, climate and security systems.

“Even if Wade is on the second floor, he can have full control over the whole house using any of the touch panels or his own iPad,” said Reagan. “If someone rings the doorbell, he can easily see and talk to them through the ELAN Intercom, and even unlock the door. We set up ‘away’ and ‘welcome’ scenes on the ELAN system, so that he can easily configure the entire home with just the touch of a button.”

For entertainment, Quadrant Systems also installed a robust multi-Gary Sinise Foundationroom audio system, which includes of SpeakerCraft in-ceiling speakers and Sunfire subwoofers. The entire system is easily controlled through the ELAN platform, so each member of the family can stream any music they choose throughout the whole house or just in one room. This versatility, along with the crystal-clear audio from SpeakerCraft and Sunfire, makes their new home the perfect place to entertain friends and family.

Reagan and his team also installed an impressive security system that Mitcheltree can arm and manage through both a physical keypad and the ELAN platform. It includes a complete and comprehensive DSC system, and is also connected to the motorized locks on the exterior doors. “Through ELAN, Wade and his wife can easily secure their house from their bed or anywhere in the world using their iPads,” said Reagan. “This gives them an incredibly important peace-of-mind and an enhanced sense of security, which is especially important as they have children.”

Judith Otter, Executive Director of the Gary Sinise Foundation, emphasized how important the customized features of the home were to Mitcheltree and his family. “They’ve been through a long and emotional journey working toward Wade’s full recovery, and this home allows them to relax and worry less about daily tasks,” Otter said. “The ELAN system is especially important for Wade, as it allows him nearly complete independence, which otherwise may not have been possible. We’re grateful for the involvement of everyone behind the ELAN brand as we work to continue providing American heroes with a completely customized specially adapted smart home.”

For high-res images of the home, click here. To watch a video of the home dedication, click here.

About ELAN
ELAN, now part of Nortek Security & Control, develops an award-winning line of whole-house entertainment and control solutions distributed through a comprehensive channel of select dealers throughout the United States, Canada, and countries worldwide. The ELAN 8 update was honored with the “2017 Human Interface Product of the Year” award and continues to expand its intuitive functionality. To learn more, visit www.elanhomesystems.com.

About Nortek Security & Control
Nortek Security & Control LLC (NSC) is a global leader in smart connected devices and systems for residential, security, access control, and digital health markets. NSC and its partners have deployed more than 4 million connected systems and over 20 million security and home control sensors and peripherals. Through its family of brands including 2GIG®, ELAN®, GoControl®, Linear®, Mighty Mule® and Numera®, NSC designs solutions for national telecoms, big box retailers, OEM partners, service providers, security dealers and consumers.

Headquartered in Carlsbad, California, NSC is a subsidiary of Melrose Industries PLC, a global investment company specializing in acquisition and performance improvement. With over 50 years of innovation, NSC is dedicated to addressing the lifestyle and business needs of millions of customers every day. For further information, visit nortekcontrol.com.

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Navy Veteran Receives Financial Support from the Gary Sinise Foundation in face of Foreclosure and Cancer Battles

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Allyson Petersen sitting in a hospital bed

By Brandon Black of the Gary Sinise Foundation

The first time it happened caught Kimberly Petersen off guard when she was watching her daughter, Allyson’s softball game. Seconds had passed, yet Allyson still had a blank stare, if not, unconscious look on her freckled face. Episodes like this kept repeating on and off the softball field, with each instance lasting for between 20 to 30 seconds.

Allyson, 11-years-old with long brown hair that matched the color of her piercing hazel eyes — the spitting image of her mother at that age — had something wrong going on inside of her. From what her daughter was exhibiting, it appeared to Petersen to be a type of epilepsy known as absence seizures, which are common among children.

Petersen spent eight years in the Navy as a corpsman. Her grounding in medicine came from advanced placements at clinics and hospitals. She and her “Ally” thought nothing more of the seizures. Allyson, unsuspectingly thought she was merely spacing out.

Appointments were scheduled with her regular doctor but problems arose with her insurance provider, preventing necessary scans being done. The alarm bells slowly began to ring as the length of each seizure Allyson experienced began to intensify, and were now accompanied with facial grimacing and her right-hand curling inwards during each episode. The noise finally hit a crescendo one summer evening in June 2016, when Allyson experienced several prolonged seizures in the same day, including a terrifying moment unlike anything before.

“We were out on the front deck when she collapsed on the flowers,” Petersen said of the startling scene that took place at their home in Sturgis, South Dakota.

Allyson’s body draped over the broken pots.

“I rolled her over, and she had stroke-like symptoms on the right side of her face.”

Allyson needed immediate medical attention and was soon after taken to the emergency center at Regional Hospital in Rapid City, a 30-minute drive from their home. After undergoing several tests, including a CT scan, it revealed that a tumor had massed over a section of Allyson’s brain that controls for speech and motor functions. Scared and frightened by the revelatory news, Allyson looked at her mother and said, “Am I going to die?”

Nearly 5,000 children and adolescents are diagnosed each year with a brain tumor, according to the American Cancer Society. As the second most common form of cancer in children, very few drugs exist in the marketplace to treat brain tumors, making traditional methods of radiation, chemotherapy, and invasive surgery typical medical care options that supplement clinical trials.

Days after visiting the emergency room, Allyson was admitted to the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she underwent an open craniotomy to remove the brain tumor. The procedure didn’t go according to plan.

Allyson Petersen's headshot
Allyson Tedder was diagnosed with brain cancer when she was 11 years old and continues treatment to this day.

During the surgery, the pediatric neurosurgeon recognized that the tumor had embedded itself deep in the brain. In the best interest of Allyson’s quality of life — ensuring she has full ability of speaking and motor functions — the decision was made to leave a fraction of the tumor in her brain to avoid any permanent damage.

In the three months that had passed since the procedure, it was discovered that the tumor had begun to regrow. With limited treatment options, Allyson was placed in a clinical trial to mitigate further growth of the tumor. The treatments didn’t work as Allyson developed complications that resulted in her leaving the trial. Chemotherapy became the next preventive measure to quash the tumor’s growth.

“She started developing cells behind her cornea which can cause blindness and irreversible damages,” explained Petersen about the dangerous side effects Allyson experienced from the cocktail of drugs that had been pumped into her body.

Several years had gone by since Petersen and her husband divorced. She wasn’t just taking care of her sick daughter and keeping her family afloat. She was also midway through a master’s degree program. The balancing act came at a high cost.

“Even though I have good insurance,” she said, “the out of pocket expenses, the food, the hotels, gas, time away from my other kids, putting the dog in the kennel, it felt like I was robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

She and Allyson frequently commuted more than 600 miles from Sturgis to Masonic Children’s Hospital so that Allyson was able to receive critical follow ups and MRI scans each phase of her cancer treatment. Depending on how much time Petersen was able to take off from the Meade School District, where she serves as a special educator, she wasn’t left with many options.

Flying to and from Minneapolis wasn’t in the cards. Petersen would either have to book it to Minneapolis in one day or spend the night at her parent’s home in Watertown, a six-hour drive from Sturgis, before spending the next four hours getting into the city.

Bills began piling up. Those that could be paid were done in piecemeal. Other bills weren’t paid at all. Downsizing expenses and making ends meet became the survivalist mentality she and her family adopted under the sole income she was bringing in. They had no other choice. It got to the point where she had to seriously ask herself, “do I pay the credit card bill, or do I pay the water bill?”

In the pecking order of priorities, Petersen was stretching every dollar she could to ensure her children had food on the table, a roof over their heads, and that she had gas in her car. She even picked up a summer job to supplement her salary by working nearby Black Hills National Forrest at an RV resort in Spearfish, South Dakota. Yet for all that she was doing to make ends meet, she was delinquent on her monthly mortgage payments.

Five months overdue, her home loan provider gave her notice that if she were unable to pay the balance and associated late fees in full, she would face foreclosure on her home.

“I have four kids looking up to me. I can’t quit, and I can’t sit there and wallow about it and have a pity party,” she said of finding any ways to deal with her financial circumstances.

While there were plenty of times, she admits, where she broke down and cried out of sight of her children, sometimes in the car or the backyard, she was resolved to seek help. Her mother, Linda, insisted she look into the Gary Sinise Foundation as a few years ago, the organization had helped her younger brother with the purchase of a new suit for his wedding. Perhaps the Foundation could help another veteran in financial need.

Through the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Relief and Resiliency program, the urgent financial needs of those like Kimberly Petersen are addressed through an initiative called heal, overcome, persevere and excel or H.O.P.E.

Petersen was hesitant at first but eventually relented, and in early February of this year, she submitted an initial inquiry seeking mortgage assistance. Within days of her submission, the Foundation’s Outreach team contacted her, requesting additional information to supplement the initial application. Not long after, she received a phone call from the Foundation with an update on the status of her application.

“She was taken aback and almost relieved of her stress,” said Nick Wicksman, who handled Petersen’s application from the start, and who was on the phone with her as the bearer of good news.

The Gary Sinise Foundation was going to cover the last four months of her mortgage and associated late fees. Petersen, having struggled tooth and nail year after year supporting her family as a single mother, was overcome with gratitude.

“She’s able to no longer worry about what is owed but to focus on the present and future by focusing on the health of her family,” said Wicksman. Had she not received financial assistance from the Gary Sinise Foundation, Petersen said matter of factly, “We would’ve lost the house.”

familytrip
Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Allyson, her three brothers, and Kimberly were able to take a family trip to London in June 2019.

While they’re not out of the tunnel just yet in Allyson’s cancer treatment, they can see the light. Despite setbacks in her regiment of treatments, Allyson was able to compete on the freshman girls’ volleyball and softball teams during the school year while also participating in the school newspaper as a photographer and journalist.

She fights the fight as oral chemotherapy treatments continue as do visits to Masonic Children’s Hospital. Looking back on the last four years and thinking about the question Allyson had asked her late in the night while at the emergency center, Petersen said, “In some ways, the tumor and her cancer diagnosis have brought us closer together because we’ve learned that you don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day.”

“Between Masonic Children’s Hospital and the Gary Sinise Foundation, I know I wouldn’t have my daughter.”

From the Corps to Corporate America

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Headshot of Laurie Sayles

U.S. Veterans Magazine asked Laurie Sayles, president and CEO of Civility Management Solutions (CivilityMS), and Jackson Dalton, president and founder of Black Box Safety, Inc., to share what it was like for them to transition out of the military and into the boardroom.

Laurie Sayles with Civility Management Solutions

Founded in 2012, CivilityMS provides professional consulting services as an SBA 8(a) certified, verified Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), Economically Disadvantaged Woman and Woman Owned Small Business (EDWOSB/WOSB). The firm’s status as a SDVOSB is verified with the Center for Veterans Enterprise (CVE) and the Veterans First Contracting Program.

USVM: Tell us about your transition from military life to one as a business owner.

Laurie Sayles (LS): I am from Chicago, IL, and have always sought out a means of having my own money or supplementing my income. I was a baby-sitter to single women in the low-income projects complex I resided as a young girl and I modeled professionally during high school, all before I joined the USMC. So, I often say that I have always been an entrepreneur.

But after getting out of the USMC, I returned to supplementing my income. I tried medical billing as a home-based business only to learn it was a scam. I also became a wellness coach and a bootcamp fitness instructor, to name a few.

My journey was long after transitioning because there was no outreach during the 90’s for military personnel leaving the USMC. For example, TAPS didn’t exist, and no one in the marketplace really cared that you were a veteran. Also, the Internet was not what it is today and there was no support to help translate your MOS. It was a more challenging time.

But I wanted to work in corporate America, so I took a job for $17,000 in 1989 as a receptionist. With that, the journey began to learn the difference of being a civilian in this space as an African-American woman with no degree. Within a short period of time, I began to take English, grammar and speaking courses to help me modify my means of communication.

I climbed the corporate ladder from receptionist to administrative assistant, to an executive assistant, to an operations director to a project manager over a 20-year period. Then in 2012, I became president and CEO of Civility Management Solutions.

USVM: How did your experience in the military influence your skillset as a business owner?

LS: My experience from the military has a huge influence in my skillset as a business owner. Again, being an African-American woman in business adds more challenges that many cannot identify with unless they belong to this ethnicity. But, thanks to being a woman that served in the Marine Corps, I am accustomed to operating in a man’s world and a world that is full of alpha males! The Marine Corps is not known to be, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines,” just as a slogan—it’s a culture and a lifestyle. As I often say, if you re-enlist in any branch of the military, it really speaks to you adapting and accepting that culture completely, otherwise you get out after first term. No one—and I do mean no one—that knows me personally walks away not knowing that I served in the Corps. It shows up in my demeanor and my strength as a business owner.

USVM: What advice would you give someone transitioning from the military into becoming a business owner?

LS: Make sure you start your homework early when you know your end date. There is so much to offer us when we get out of the military, and finally this country is beginning to recognize this fact. Our discipline, leadership, resilience and determination set us apart from anyone else who never served. So, with running anything … you’ve been trained while you wore the uniform; trained to operate in high integrity; and trained to leave no man behind. All three of these lead to you being a strong leader willing to take full responsibility for your actions. Help others be successful as you become successful.

Do take advantage of all the training being offered by the SBA in your State, affiliates of the SBA, and programs offered to veterans of the military. Get yourself affiliated with associations and advocacy groups that focus on the type of work you want to do as a business owner.

Lastly, network, network and network some more to find people that you can engage with. And get yourself some mentors! Each one will add different values and you can call on them as needed.

Jackson Dalton and Black Box Safety, Inc.

Headshot of Jackson DaltonBlack Box Safety, Inc. specializes in the prevention of serious injury in the workplace by supplying safety equipment for government agencies and organizations. Dalton is a Board-Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and holds a Master’s degree (MPH) in public health—only 17 percent of CSPs hold both (Board of Certified Safety Professionals, 2017) —as well as a Bachelor’s degree in business administration.

USVM: Tell us about your transition from military life to one as a business owner.

Jackson Dalton (JD): I was injured while serving in the Marine Corps. As a direct result of the injuries I sustained, I went through 3 leg surgeries and was not able to walk for a year. While serving, I was hurt at work—essentially an occupational injury. From this experience, I have made it my mission in life to ensure that others aren’t hurt at work, so that they can continue to do the things that they love to do.

As a direct result of my Marine Corps experience, I transitioned from the military into a career in occupational health and safety. I pursued a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in Public Health, and spent over 10 years working as a Safety Engineer. Three years ago, it was my desire to help more people in a more meaningful way so I left my job at 3M and started my company, Black Box Safety, Inc., which is a supplier of safety products and safety training to government agencies and organizations that are looking for ways to reduce risk and help their employees stay safe and healthy.

USVM: How did your experience in the military influence your skillset as a business owner?

JD: My experience in the Marine Corps instilled two traits: Grit and bearing. Grit is the ability or decision to persevere in the face of extreme hardship and danger. Bearing is the ability to maintain a calm and confident demeanor in the face of adversity and uncertainty. I learned that the most contagious thing in the world is not infectious disease—it’s human emotion. As a leader, if I lose my bearing and communicate emotions of fear and stress, those emotions will be transferred to those I’m leading. I served as a squad leader in the Marine Corps and today I serve as President of Black Box Safety, Inc., where I am responsible for the health and welfare of 2 full-time employees and 4 part-time employees.

USVM: What advice would you give someone transitioning from the military into becoming a business owner?

JD: This is the advice that I would give to someone transitioning from the military to entrepreneurship

  1. Take advantage of every educational opportunity available including but not limited to: Post-secondary education funded through the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Dept. of VA Vocational Rehabilitation Ch.31,; free business start-up courses offered through the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) [SBA offers free business courses online at SBA.gov]; apply for a free SCORE mentor; podcasts featuring business start-up advice; and finally an often-overlooked resource that proved to be of great value and benefit to me, Shark Tank and YouTube.
  2. Join an incubator that is composed at least partially of active-duty and veteran business owners. I benefited greatly from the camaraderie I found by applying to a veteran incubator called Tactical Launch. I went through this incubator 2 years ago, and I am still close friends with many of the members of the cohort and many of us continue to be successful in business. The camaraderie is necessary when starting a business, especially if you are the sole founder. It’s actually the number one thing that servicemen and women miss the most when transitioning out of the military.
  3. If you are able to do so, start your business now. Many business startups require very little in the way of capital and expense. Most can be started out of your home with a phone, a laptop and a lot of determination. The biggest mistake I see in other founders is the desire to have everything ready prior to launch. A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.

2 WWII veterans who are lifelong friends celebrate 96th and 97th birthdays together

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WWll veterans pictured smiling lifelong friends celebrate birthday together

World War II veterans and lifelong friends celebrated their 96th and 97th birthdays together in Whittier, California on Sunday. U.S. Army Veteran Randel “Randy” Zepeda Fernandez is turning 96 this week. His best friend of nearly 90 years, U.S. Coast Guard veteran Salvador “Sal” B. Guzman, just turned 97.

Fernandez’s son, Steve Fernandez, decided a major event was in order to mark the momentous occasion.

So he organized a massive celebration that drew a parade of community members, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and even mariachi musicians.

“This is amazing. I didn’t expect it to be this big,” Steve Fernandez said.

Both veterans said they were surprised by the outpouring of gratitude.

“I knew nothing about this,” Guzman said.

The men’s friendship dates back to childhood.

“We’ve known each other since the second grade,” Randy Fernandez said. The men attended elementary school and junior high together, before they both attended Garfield High School, they said.

Randy Fernandez helped liberate concentration camps and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which helped organize the event. Guzman patrolled the Northern California coastline on horseback from 1943 to 1944.

“Both veterans reunited in the 1950s and bought their first homes on the same street in Montebello, raising their families together,” the sheriff’s department said in a written statement.

Continue on to CBS News to read the complete article.

How to Land a Government Contract

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A headshot of Katie Bigelow

By Katie Bigelow, founder, Mettle Ops

Government contracting is not for the faint of heart. The barriers to entry are high and the regulations are complicated and overwhelming. If easy money is the goal, government contracting is not the way to get it. We lose 99 bids out of 100. Can you take that kind of beating and keep going?

The first steps to government contracting are pretty simple. Register with Dun & Bradstreet. Don’t pay them or anyone else to do it. Regardless, of how it seems, it is a free service. They will give you a DUNS number. Use that to register in Sam.Gov where you will get a CAGE code. Don’t skip the opportunity in Sam.gov to complete the SBA Dynamic Small Business search. Read all the regulations that you are committed to follow. Next, register with Beta.sam.gov and look for opportunities to bid. When you find something that looks good, read the whole thing. That’s right. Read all 76 pages paying particular attention to the Performance Work Statement, Section L, and Section M. Submit your bid per their instructions. That’s it. Too easy.

I don’t actually know anyone that has made any real money doing it this way. No doubt there are people out there that simply followed the prescribed path and struck it big. More often, there are people that followed the path and ended up in the pokey, too.

The hard truth is that nobody in this business is rooting for you. I have never found a Government Small Business office that did anything other than put your name on a list and provide a PowerPoint presentation.

Government Contracting Officers, as a general rule, don’t want to do lots of small contracting actions for small businesses. They want to execute fewer contracting actions for big businesses with big dollar amounts. One of my first customers tried to offer me a $14 million contract. The contracting command gave us all a giant “NO!” We were too small, too new, too much of a nuisance.

“Go work for a prime for 5 years,” is the verbatim advice we’ve received from contracting officers. Large government primes have lots of attorneys, lots of money, and lots of shareholders to please. They use small businesses, strip the name of the small business off the work and offer it as your own. It’s not illegal. If you don’t mind, this may be the route for you. It’s not the route for me.

Here’s my secret sauce: Work really hard. Do all the things I mentioned in paragraph 2 and then work hard. We take every opportunity we can afford to meet people, to shake hands, to share what we’ve learned. We don’t shy away from making referrals, even if we get nothing in return. We wear our character on our sleeves, our business cards, and our websites. We were warfighters and always will be at heart. There is a standard of values that comes with that.

We are students of our industry. Take DAU classes. We read and connect and learn. We reach out personally to potential customers every single day. Our goal is to understand more about government contracting than even our customers know. We aren’t trying to outsmart them. We are trying to provide great value to them.

To date, I have only won 4 government contracts since 2015. The first was for $70,000, then $14 million, then $19 million, and the most recent another $19 million. Since I told you we won 1 out of 100 or less, you can do the math to see how many times we lost. Decide if this is the industry for you. If it is, call me. Maybe we can do it together.

Katie Bigelow is the founder of Mettle Ops, a woman-owned, service-disabled, veteran-owned, disadvantaged small business. WBE, WOSB, EDWOSB, NVBDC, CVE, VOSB, SDVOSB, U.S. Small Business Administration 8(a) Certified 2027

How the Gary Sinise Foundation Helped a National Guardsman and Special Education Teacher

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Renee Villareel holding her daughter, Natalie, above her head.

By Brandon Black of The Gary Sinise Foundation

At the start of the year, one semester separated Renne Villareal from earning a degree in Special Education. One semester stood between her and starting a career teaching kids and adolescents diagnosed with physical and mental learning needs.

Her years-long endeavor started in high school, fueled by what she saw as malicious attacks on the boys and girls whose impediments made them targets of harassment. They were teased and bullied because of how different they looked and spoke. Some were called “stupid,” while others were called “lazy.” Villarreal was not one to stand idle and watch. She felt the instinct to charge to their defense. It was the right thing to do, no doubt, and it came as second nature.

Both her parents served in the military, which is how Villarreal inherited their values and sense of duty. Standing up for the rights of others, and advocating for kids with disabilities became her mission ever since her time as a student at Lyman Hall High School.

“I realized this is what I’m going to be good at. I want to be a teacher,” she said. “I want to help and stick up for these kids that need me.”

At Southern Connecticut State University, where Villarreal is currently an undergraduate, her fieldwork in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy puts her side-by-side teaching children with autism. Under the guidance of an accredited therapist, she develops individualized lesson plans focused on improving her client’s interpersonal behavior and learning skills.

At the same time, for the last two years, Villarreal has been serving part-time in the Connecticut Army National Guard, attached to the aviation unit of the 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group. Joining the National Guard was her way of fulfilling her patriotic duty and honoring her parents’ service. The pay isn’t much, she admits, so to make ends meet, she supplements her income from the army and therapy by working a few days a week at the neighborhood PetSmart.

Up until the second week of March, she was living paycheck-to-paycheck. But the 23-year-old single mother, the sole breadwinner with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, was unprepared for the public health pandemic sweeping across the country.

A crisis loomed on the horizon.

On March 8, Governor Ned Lamont announced the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. The dominos fell right after with COVID-19 infections popping up in counties throughout the state.

Southern Connecticut State University closed its campus, opting to deliver the curriculum online for the next semester, which pushed Villarreal’s fieldwork courses from the spring term to the fall. It also pushed back her graduation date to later in the year.

One by one, her primary sources of income started drying up. The National Guard reduced her service hours, and with that, a drop in her monthly paycheck. Parents of her clients canceled ABA therapy sessions for the foreseeable future. And a number of part-time employees at PetSmart, including Villarreal, were furloughed.

Her life was upended in a matter of weeks. “How am I going to pay rent?” she asked herself. “How am I going to put food on the table?”

Sleepless nights beget sleepness nights. Alone and caring for her daughter with limited resources at her disposal, Villarreal was overcome by a cruel mixture of stress and depression. Standing amongst the throngs of people waiting in line at the local food bank one day, Villarreal felt she had hit rock bottom.

“I felt like a bad mom because I wasn’t able to provide,” she said. “No mom wants to feel that way.” As her finances started dwindling, Villarreal had her reasons for hesitating in asking for help.

“In my mind, I’ve always done everything by myself,” she said while ticking off a list of life decisions she made independently of others from enlisting in the army and working multiple jobs to paying for her bills and education.

By the time she contacted the Gary Sinise Foundation at the end of March seeking financial assistance, Villarreal said her situation was making her “drown with worry.”

“I put in all my effort to try to make the best life for my daughter and me that I can. I felt like it was all about to go down.”

To keep her afloat, the Foundation paid two months of her rent through the Emergency COVID-19 Combat Service fund. Villarreal also received a Walmart gift card to cover the costs of groceries and other out of pocket expenses, such as buying diapers.

“The foundation literally changed my life,” she said. “I don’t know how I would have made it without them.” In a matter of days after receiving help from the Foundation, Villarreal has experienced an about-face in her life.

No more waiting in line at the food bank with her fingers crossed that staples such as milk and eggs will be available, and more importantly, not past their expiration date. No more stressful days and sleepless nights that mired her for weeks on end.

Renee Villareal's daughter, Natalie, smiling up at the camera
Renee Villareel’s daughter, Natalie, who will be three in September.

“It’s scary to think that I could have lost everything I’ve worked so hard for,” she said about being embarrassed and afraid to ask for help. In short order, she and her daughter, Natalie, have become glued at the hip.

“I’m able to really take advantage of my time now and just catch up with myself,” she said about having time to relax and read a book or take Natalie outdoors to go fishing and to the park.

When Villarreal graduates this fall, she will be among a growing number of professionals nationwide who are entering an in-demand occupation. Projections from the Connecticut Department of Labor show a dearth of special education teachers at the primary and secondary school levels. Increasing numbers of children over the years have been diagnosed with a physical or mental disability that adversely affects their ability to learn in the classroom, explained Villarreal.

In the 2015-16 school year, more than 70,000 students in kindergarten to 12th grade in the state of Connecticut required special education. That number has since ballooned in the last five years to well over 79,000 students representing 15.6% of the state’s student population.

Despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead for her and Natalie with the state yet to see a bend in its curve of coronavirus cases, Villarreal remains focused on becoming a special education teacher.

Blue Water Navy Act Helps Veterans Achieve the American Dream

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Bryan Bergjans with his family at an awards ceremony

By Bryan Bergjans, Navy reservist officer

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 was passed in January, and with it came a lot of changes for military and veterans that they may not know about. As a Navy veteran, I am extremely thankful that this Act carries with it long-awaited benefits to those Navy Vietnam veterans.

The law also brings with it a host of other benefits that changes the landscape of the VA Home Loan benefit as we know it. The new law exempts Purple Heart recipients currently serving on active duty from the VA Home Loan Funding fee. In 2019, you couldn’t receive exemption status unless you were receiving VA disability, and as it stands today, we have a lot of active duty still serving but who were injured in combat and received Purple Hearts that would have had to wait until discharge to be exempt.

Prior to the Blue Water Navy Act, the VA Home Loan Benefit provided entitled military and veterans an opportunity to purchase a home up to, but not limited to, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) conforming loan limits with zero down payment.
For example, to buy a home in St Louis, Missouri, a qualified veteran or military member could purchase with no down payment up to the conforming loan limit, which in 2019 was $484,350. Now this sounds great, and it has been a great benefit no doubt, but what about the high cost areas? What about folks who live in the coastal regions where housing prices have sky rocketed over the last 5, 10, 15 years?

These folks would have to bring in sizable down payments in a market like today, where the supply is low, most options are new construction and the prices are extremely high. So, our military members were forced to rent, or even worse, settle for substandard housing options (we won’t get into those).

Then this little miracle showed up on January 1, 2020, and changed everything! VA Guaranteed Home Loans will no longer be ‘limited’ to the FHFA conforming loan limits. Military and veterans who are entitled to the benefit will now be able to obtain a no-down-payment home loan in all areas of the United States.

The caveat to this is that every lender has established specific caps or max loan amounts they are willing to lend on this program. This actually gives our men and women of the armed forces and veterans the opportunity to purchase their dream home, in their dream location, across the US without having to worry about a substantial down payment. The VA Home Loan is the best performing loan in the mortgage play book.

Every servicer would like to have these types of loans in their portfolios because they have very low default/foreclosure rates. This is a testament to the folks who get VA Loans, who have shown such as honor, courage and commitment! Those who are eligible for this program have all raised their right hands and said they are willing to give it their all for our freedom! This change was long overdue and an exciting new chapter for military and veteran home buyers.

Strange Days, Indeed

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Headshot of Scoba Rhoades

By Scoba Rhodes

Like you, I have been cooped up in my apartment for almost two weeks. For me, the lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much, except when I head outside, the experience is very different.

Since being confined to a wheelchair, I’ve had to adjust to working more from home. It took me over ten years to adjust to my situation, so to expect anyone to do it overnight is a really tall order. Everything is closed except for the huge lines waiting to get inside the grocery stores. No one is hanging out at the coffee shop, the malls are either empty or closed all together, and even the pool at my apartment complex is locked due to “an abundance of caution.” I agree with these measures since they are meant to save lives. But in the meantime, I can’t help but wonder if the lives the government is hoping to save aren’t going stir crazy wondering when this will all be over.

During my voluntary internment, I’ve been catching up on my reading. Much has been work-related, with some personal development mixed in, and quite a few have been articles advising us on how to best cope with the current crisis. My current book is titled, “How to break the habit of being yourself.” It’s quite a read.

I have read articles providing ideas on working out inside your home, new recipes to try, even ideas on making movie and music lists. There have been articles on the power of positive thinking during this crisis, and that may be the most misused concept yet. I’ve heard many state and federal government briefs stating over and over that this is a temporary condition, yet I’m pretty sure when this article is published, we may still be in our homes waiting out this wave.

I am part of a group of neighbors that get together every Wednesday and share some good wine and conversation and catch up with each other in our neighborhood clubhouse. It has been closed for a few weeks, so we decided to meet outside today, keeping our six-foot distance and each bringing our own wine. We were having a great time until one of the complex managers said we had to go back to our apartments. I complied, as did everyone else, and I cannot say the manager was wrong to do it. In fact, looking back, I can say it was the correct decision. I just felt like a 54-year-old man being told to go to his room.

I can’t help but wonder once this is all over, will everyone have adjusted to the new habits, and will shaking hands will have become a thing of the past? When these thoughts enter my mind, I immediately find a book I’ve been putting off reading, place a Blu-ray on I’ve been thinking about, or just sit down with my wife and have a cup of coffee together, something we haven’t done in a long time. Thanks to the current level of technology, I can meet with clients and friends using Zoom or Skype, something I am quite used to. I actually did my first year at USC from my hospital room, and it was the Skype application that allowed me to be in the classroom. This was in 2012, long before the schools went online. Necessity is always the mother of invention it may seem.

I am part of the population with compromised health issues. Being paralyzed, having bronchitis as a child has left me with scar tissue on my lungs, and being in my mid-fifties all means I cannot afford to be cavalier about the current situation. Now when my wife says to make sure I take a jacket, or don’t forget my hat, I no longer say “I’ll be fine.” Now my answer is “Thank you sweetheart. I got it.” I head out, collect what I need, and return home.

I am attempting to build relationships online, in the hopes that when we are allowed to congregate again, we will still be somewhat familiar with each other, and have a newfound appreciation for the joys of personal connection. There are networks on LinkedIn and Facebook for every group you can imagine. Nextdoor.com is also a great place to find and connect digitally with your neighbors. If you’re in Orange County, I relish the day when we can meet in person, share a cup of coffee at my favorite coffee shop, or grab a nice lunch (or martini) at my favorite hangout at the District Mall.

I can’t pretend the current situation is not happening (which it is), nor abandon hope that it is temporary (which I know). I realize by taking these steps now, I am participating in a practice that will benefit our nation, and possibly save a life. I remind myself that I am not being sent to my room, I am doing this willingly in support of a greater health effort. When I feel frustrated or cooped up, which happens more than I’d like to admit, I find a lesson online and learn something new, or take time to reconnect with my wife.

One thing is for sure: Our habits and attitudes will be forever altered. Some for the betterment of society, some for the safety of ourselves and our families. Let’s attempt to make those changes out of diligence, and not fear.

To quote author John Shedd, Admiral Grace Hopper, and Albert Einstein, “Ships are safest when in port. But that’s not what ships are for.”

Be safe and healthy everyone, and remember, “This too shall pass.”

5 Ways Veterans Can Leverage Facebook to Grow their Career or Business

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Payton Iheme smiling at the camera

By Payton Iheme, U.S. Public Policy Manager, Facebook

Each year, an estimated 200,000 service members return to civilian life and for some, this brings uncertainty to what’s next in their career, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

However, these service men and women continue to contribute to their country, even when they return, albeit in a different way.

I have spent more than 15 years on active duty and continue to serve—from being an officer in the Army’s Special Operations Command and a White House Senior Policy Advisor to currently a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army National Guard. In addition, as the co-owner of a home remodeling business, I know firsthand how important it is to have the right tools and support, whether it’s in the military or as a veteran small business owner.

Everyday Facebook serves as a platform for veterans to find and be a part of groups that help them build community. In fact, more than 900,000 people in the US participate in more than 2,000 groups for military members, veterans and their spouses on Facebook. As a proud supporter of the military-veteran community, Facebook has also made it easier for veterans transitioning into civilian life to find career opportunities and draw on their unique skills to start their entrepreneurial journey.

That’s why we recently announced the launch of the Military and Veterans Hub to provide an all-encompassing resource for veterans to continue to build their community, find job opportunities and enhance their digital skills through Facebook to grow a business or a career.

Facebook also partnered with SCORE, the nation’s largest network of volunteer expert business mentors, to provide business education and mentoring to military members, veterans and their families who want to become entrepreneurs. I utilized SCORE’s resources during my transition into civilian life and it helped me not only build on my experience and skills to find a new career, but it also gave me the confidence to start something new. I’m particularly thrilled about our partnership with SCORE and the opportunities it will unlock for fellow veterans.

Whether you want to build a business or a career, here are five ways military members, spouses and veterans can use Facebook’s Military and Veteran Hub to their advantage:

1. Connect with a mentor from a cohort of SCORE’s experienced business mentors, who are also U.S. veterans themselves, through the Mentor Match program.

2. Access our veteran-focused educational toolkit for launching a business that includes steps for developing a business plan.

3. Attend a veteran-focused interactive workshop to receive guidance on starting a business. We’ll be working with ten local SCORE chapters to bring these in-person workshops to cities that we’ve determined to have a high concentration of military members and veterans.

4. Find employment opportunities through the Facebook Jobs Tool. Frank Diaz, an Army veteran and owner of Tin Hut BBQ, uses the Facebook Jobs Tool, for example, to source employees at his mobile restaurant with an objective to hire discharged veterans in need of work and mentorship.

5. Test out the Facebook Military Skills Translator, designed to help people find careers on Facebook relevant to their military experience. As the Public Policy Manager at Facebook, I’m proud to be a part of a company that values my experience and allows me to use my military skills to make an impact on the business.

Facebook’s Military and Veteran Hub make it easier for military spouses and the military community to find and access Facebook’s resources, tools, events and groups. For more information, visit our website here 

Payton Iheme (Facebook US Public Policy) focuses on policy issues on a range of topics, but works closely on issues related to the Internet, digital economy/small business, counter terrorism, cybersecurity, data privacy, and partnerships. Previously, she served as the Senior Policy Advisor for Communication Technology at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She holds honor degrees from the University of Texas and a master’s degree in Government Policy from the George Washington University. Iheme currently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army National Guard.

Meet Brittney Nicole: Navy Veteran Turned Fashion Entrepreneur

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A clothes hangar filled with women's coats

Transitioning from military life back into civilian life is a challenge for any veteran. While there are many different approaches in choosing a career, one U.S. Navy Veteran decided that she would approach her career choice by following her passions.

Always having a love for fashion, Brittney Nicole decided to open her own clothing business, Coco’s Wardrobe, upon her retirement from the U.S. Navy. The New Orleans based boutique designs, manufactures, and sells women’s clothing that is meant to look as good as they feel, blending comfort with style. All of the clothing in Nicole’s shop has a women’s desire to feel confident and comfortable at the forefront of everything that is produced.

In addition, Nicole has also began selling uniquely designed face masks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How the Girl Scouts are Spreading Joy to a Navy Ship

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A man in a military uniform holding a stack of packages

People Magazine‘s Senior Graphics Operator, Nikki Smalls, and Live Graphics Operator, Lucas Walsh, began a conversation one day about Walsh’s sister, Caitlin Walsh. Caitlin is currently serving in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Truman.

The entire crew of the Truman tested negative for COVID-19, but have collectively agreed to isolate themselves rather than take deployment as an extra precaution.

When Nikki Smalls heard about Caitlin and the rest of her crew, she wanted to find a way to show her gratitude for their service while also spreading some extra joy. Teaming up with her daughters’ Brownie Scouts Troop, Troop 83340, she decided to lead the girls in creating care packages to send to those serving on the U.S.S. Truman.

Continue on to People Magazine’s website to read the complete article

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