By Jennifer Weaver for VALOR Forge
Utah has a large, underserved veteran and military population that experiences hardship with unemployment, lack of access to Veterans Affairs benefits, and even food scarcity. To help fill the essential resource gaps, the Utah chapter of Blue Star Families (BSF) came into being in July 2019. Since its inception, nearly 3,000 members have joined the chapter.
“All of the programs that we offer are always free. There’s never a cost. We really try to encourage people to become members to connect to the community, participate in national events and tap into all the research,” said Emily Harrison, Utah Chapter Director.
Supporting military families and veterans is close to Harrison’s heart. Her husband was on active duty for 22 years. He retired in 2017, but since the time of their marriage, Harrison has been involved as a volunteer for family readiness and then became a paid staffer as a federal civilian. She was embedded in active-duty units doing family readiness for years.
“I spent almost my entire time doing social services-type work while my husband was in the military. Once my husband retired, we came to Utah and I continued in that role working with the Army Reserve at Fort Douglas 807th Medical Command,” Harrison said. “I did that for about two years, and then I was in a meeting with veterans and a BSF representative came to the meeting announcing it was hiring locally.”
A few months after that meeting, another BSF representative attended that same regularly scheduled meeting. At that point, Harrison decided, “I will run — not walk — to this gentleman after the meeting for information.” A few months later, she was hired as the Utah chapter’s first director.
In her role, Harrison is dedicated to connecting military families to their civilian neighbors and providing resources for veterans. The organization provides signature programs that are the same across all chapters, such as Blue Star Books, Start Reading, caregivers program, and new this year — the branded Nourish the Services that helps with food insecurity. “How implementation can look is different based on the chapter’s area. We can develop our own programs based on needs, or partner with other programs, but it depends on the chapter,” Harrison said.
A couple of unique offerings the Utah chapter provides is its Blue Star Museums program. Chapter members can have free admission to partner museums throughout the summer from May 21 through Labor Day each year. They can attend as often as they like during that time at no cost. Some participating museums include the Children’s Treehouse Museum in Ogden, the Natural History Museum and the Fort Douglas Military Museum.
Another summer program is Blue Star Outdoors that encourages military families to visit state and national parks. Then in the fall, the annual Blue Star Welcome Week takes place. It typically is sponsored the last week of September, which is also the peak transition period for Permanent Change of Station (PCS). New families are welcomed to the community and connected to resources in their local area.
“It can be really difficult for families to move station to station, and it’s pretty much like starting all over and you have to find new doctors and new hairstylists, so we try to provide as many resources to the local area as possible,” Harrison said. “We help spouses and transitioning veterans with their employment needs, too.”
Helping families in need
Maria Guerrero will tell you that BSF goes above and beyond for its members. She said the nonprofit is an invaluable resource, especially for the military community.
“My family PCS’d here in August of 2021. I was fresh out of surgery and was looking at a long road to recovery. It was an extremely hard PCS on my family financially due to so many incidents that occurred over the four months we were here,” Guerrero said.
All the family’s household goods (HHG) were delayed well into November, and many of their personal belongings needed to be repaired or replaced. The unexpected out-of-pocket expenses for their property being overweight in transit, because the packers loaded more than they were instructed to, drained their bank account.
“We also had out-of-pocket flights to another state to pick up our vehicles,” she said. “All the extra expenses that families have when PCSing from overseas ... Needless to say, our wallets were stretched thin.”
Guerrero didn’t know what to do for Christmas, but BSF did. The chapter supplied the family with gift cards and vouchers for food and groceries.
“We were able to give our four kids the Christmas they deserved. They also provided my kids with tons of books! Our kids were overjoyed as they all love reading,” she said. “Thanks to BSF, our children had a wonderful holiday season that we might not have been able to give them if not for the generosity of BSF.”
Reaching out to others
The Utah chapter is not only mindful of families, but also fully aware of the issues plaguing veterans. BSF partners with the Salt Lake City VA suicide prevention team. This year will mark the third year that is designated as a special month of programming for suicide awareness. Half a dozen offerings throughout the month of September include clinical presentations, such as Zoom training that is open to other healthcare providers in the community.
“Last year, we did a walk. The last two years, we had a virtual evening featuring LGBTQ+ art and music,” Harrison said.
A particular campaign that happens each June is fireworks awareness for veterans. Harrison said the chapter is heavily involved in educating the community about why fireworks could be irritating and problematic for veterans who may be triggered by painful and peak life memories.
Firework relief kits that are filled with eye masks, earplugs, and information to access partner apps — Spirittune & Headspace — provide calming techniques and meditation to help veterans through any symptoms of distress. A list is also published of all fireworks displays so veterans are aware of what is happening in the community. “Veterans really appreciate that effort so we will definitely continue that,” Harrison said.
BSF is also continuing the events it provides for the military families on base. Guerrero said recently there was an event where the soldiers were given gift bags. “(There was) coffee, books, magazines, cups, sweatbands, and gift cards,” she said. “I know our soldiers appreciate and enjoy everything that BSF has provided them.”
Post-event surveys Harrison reviews often are submitted with anonymous comments. She said one survey detailed a family’s terrible financial situation but through BSF the family was able to have a Thanksgiving meal without having to worry how they would eat the rest of the week. It’s shared experiences like that keep her motivated and provides a sense of how much the program is needed in the Beehive State.
In fact, Utah residents are invited to join BSF. Membership is open to everyone. Harrison said some chapter members have grandfathers who served in the military but have no other personal connection other than an appreciation for the armed forces. “Anyone can be a member and get connected to the same information and resources as military-connected folks,” Harrison said.
Increasing membership helps the BSF demographics of active duty, veterans, caregivers, and civilians that is important for partners that fund the chapter. Donations are also accepted that fund the partner apps, programs and other benefits offered by BSF.
“We are trying to get funding to sustain the chapter,” Harrison said. “The more numbers we have, and participants at events, helps us bring in funds to be self-sustaining and continue to bring in programs to the community.”
To join BSF for free, go to bluestarfam.org/join. Resources and events are also readily shared on Facebook at @utbsf.
Jennifer Weaver is a freelance writer and editor.
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