By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
For many service members, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society is not simply a place to ask for help, but also a place to offer help to fellow Sailors and Marines – and their families. So far this year, 20% of our nearly 3,200 volunteers have been on active duty while serving with the Society during their off-duty times. They’ve volunteered in our thrift shops and uniform lockers, provided budget counseling and financial assistance, made emergency travel arrangements and provided after-regular-business-hours emergency assistance.
From individuals to entire commands, active duty volunteers demonstrate their commitment to giving back. “Our thrift shop is operated completely by one of the local commands,” explained NMCRS Great Lakes Director Carol Ward. “Not only do they open the store each morning, but from 4pm to 6pm Monday through Thursday, our thrift shop lead DC1 Muskett and the SWOSU instructors are responsible for operating the NMCRS thrift shop.”
This arrangement has been in place for five years. “The military leadership’s support of NMCRS Great Lakes is incredible,” Ward said. “They even helped move us to our current location, an old bank, in 2011.”
Even when the Great Lakes thrift shop isn’t open for business, volunteers are working behind the scenes to sort and organize the donated items. Often, this work is done by Recruit Training Command students who have graduated from Boot Camp but are “on hold” awaiting assignment or PCS orders to their next school or post. “This is a training base. Keeping students busy volunteering in our thrift shop helps to keep them out of trouble,” Ward joked.
Active duty service members also share the load at the NMCRS North Island thrift shop, which is actually located 13 miles away from the NMCRS office on Naval Air Station North Island. “We don’t have room in our office to collect donated items for the thrift shop, so we have a donation box in front of the office,” explained North Island Director Traci Schuck. “When I became the director, I tried to pick up all the items myself but I was soon completely overwhelmed.” So Shuck asked for help and members of Tactical Training Squadron (TACRON) 11 volunteered to unload the donation box and deliver the items to the NMCRS thrift shop, located over on the Alternate Landing Field.
“I was stationed at NAS North Island as an instructor, and one of my students was having some pay issues,” explained AS1 Martha Hammersmith. “I went with her to the pay and personnel office to ensure she was taken care of, but they weren’t able to process the pay corrections fast enough to get her paid that day. Someone suggested NMCRS might be able to help, so we went to the Society office together. When we arrived, there was a line of Sailors and spouses waiting to be helped. I asked if NMCRS was looking for volunteers and they gave me an application on the spot.” Three years later, Hammersmith still volunteers for NMCRS North Island. She processes quick assist loans, helps at the thrift shop, and pitches in wherever she’s needed.
The volunteers who work the afternoon shift on Tuesdays, when the North Island thrift shop stays open until 6pm, are also active duty service members. Schuck credits Hammersmith as one of her “most prolific recruiters,” who constantly brings new service members to the shop to help out with whatever needs to be done. “Our floors get dirty, so once a year we move everything out of the thrift shop and many local commands show up to help strip and buff the floor. Martha is a very effective networker within the First Class Petty Officers Association. Last year, she showed up with a team of 28 Sailors who, over four days, stripped, waxed, and buffed the entire thrift shop floor. You could’ve eaten off of it.”
At NMCRS Lemoore, in California, one of the military leaders wanted the thrift shop to open on weekends for Sailors and families who can’t get there during the week. “They had the idea and ran with it,” said Lemoore Chair of Volunteers Patricia Clark. “On the first Saturday of the month I meet them and open the NMCRS thrift shop. Then active duty volunteers operate the store the rest of the day. I’m just here as support. Being open on one Saturday a month is also great for active duty spouses who work during the week. We hope our shoppers go back to their work centers, units and commands and tell everyone what they could find for sale at the NMCRS thrift shop. For instance, advancements and CPO pinnings are coming up in August. Did you know a CPO selectee might find a set of like-new NWUs in our thrift shop for $6, as opposed to $80 for a brand new set?”
Traditional volunteer roles such as client services assistants, caseworkers, and budget for baby instructors also appeal to active duty service members. Many have flexible schedules and must have their supervisors’ approval. For instance,
Jolyn Leonard, who teaches budget for baby classes at NMCRS North Island.
“We get a lot of active duty service members who want to volunteer with the Society while they are waiting for PCS orders to attend a school or are on medical hold,” explained Alice Huffman, director of NMCRS Gulfport in Mississippi. “They’re all looking for something useful to do all day. Often, their commands refer them to us and sometimes the word gets out in the barracks that volunteering for the Society is fun and rewarding. We’re happy to have them all.”
“Our most consistent and established volunteers are students from the XYZ training school,” Huffman said. “Their leading petty officers are always looking for volunteer opportunities for them. Every year those students volunteer to support our Secret Santa Shop which we sponsor through our thrift store. I take every opportunity to tell their leaders how much we appreciate the students’ support and all the volunteered hours they provide.”
Even when they can’t make it into the NMCRS office, service members can volunteer by crocheting or knitting baby blankets for the junior sea bags that budget for baby participants receive.
CPOs Respond Quickly to After Hours Emergencies
When Friday comes around and a service member doesn’t get paid, he or she might not discover it until the end of the day after regular business hours. Realizing there’s not enough money for food or diapers in your checking account is not a good feeling. When the NMCRS Patuxent River office is closed, Sailors and Marines can still get financial assistance from the volunteer chief petty officers who are on call every night and on weekends for emergencies.
“Sometimes a service member has been overpaid so the government takes back the overpayment all at once and the service member gets a zero paycheck, which they weren’t anticipating,” explained Maureen Farrell, director of NMCRS Patuxent River. “We help them get through the weekend or until the pay situation is straightened out. If they have a family, they have immediate needs–their family can’t eat in the galley and babies can’t go without diapers and formula. The after-hours CPOs take care of the immediate need, and ask them to visit the NMCRS office on Monday to sit down and go over the family’s expenses and create a viable budget.
According to Farrell, the after-hours CPO program started in the mid-90s and is unique to NMCRS Patuxent River and a few other NMCRS offices. There are about 20 CPOs who volunteer for her office at any given time, and they rotate after-hours emergency NMCRS support duty every 12 weeks. The CPOs run the program. Farrell conducts casework and emergency financial assistance training twice a year for the volunteer CPOs. On Mondays, when her office opens, the after-hours client cases are turned over to be recorded and followed-up by regular NMCRS volunteers who staff the office.
“It’s great to have active duty volunteers working alongside. Our clients get after-hours assistance, and they get to talk with someone who understands their situation,” Farrell said. “Having CPOs as volunteers give us a broader level of experience to deal with unique situations. It also means anyone who has a need is going to be taken care of and they won’t have to go somewhere else.”
“Back in 2003, I went to NMCRS Fort Worth, Texas, because I couldn’t pay my insurance deductible when my car was hit,” recalled PO1 Charyn Clark. “Because the Society was so helpful, I asked them what I could do to give back.” Clark has been volunteering ever since. She started by answering phones in the Fort Worth office during her lunch hour. She continued serving as a client services assistant at NMCRS Great Lakes. “When I transferred to Baltimore, I worked out of the NMCRS Navy Yard office in Washington, DC. I worked out a schedule with my command to get off work early on a particular day and spend the afternoon at the NMCRS Navy Yard office. I’m a Navy personnel specialist, so I have military pay and personnel experience and knowledge that is very beneficial when helping clients and training other non-military volunteers.”
Even when she transferred to Buffalo, New York, nowhere near an NMCRS office, Clark wanted to continue volunteering, so she worked remotely for Melodie Weddle, director of the Navy Yard office, doing special projects. Most recently, Clark transferred to Norfolk and teaching budget for baby classes, which seem particularly relevant since she has a two-year-old. “I knew about the junior sea bag program when I gave birth to my son, and said, ‘I’ll have one of those hand-made blankets!’ It’s not enough to say I’ve benefited from the Society – I actually contribute as well.”