When her former husband was the Active Duty Fund Drive coordinator for his ship, Debbie Fulkerson was intrigued by the mission of the Society. She was a preschool teacher at the time, but, “I always thought volunteering for the Society was something I’d like to do,” she recalled. “But soon my family came along – I didn’t know the Society reimbursed volunteers for child care. If I’d known that, I would’ve started volunteering a lot earlier!” As it turned out, by the time the Fulkerson family PCS’d to Yokosuka, Japan in 2003, Fulkerson’s kids were in school and she had some free time.
“I volunteered for four months before being hired as a relief services assistant (RSA) for a year-and-a-half,” Fulkerson said. She repeated this pattern in Naples, Italy, where she volunteered for nine months and then worked as an RSA for two-and-a-half years. When the family PCS’d to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Fulkerson divided her volunteer hours between the NMCRS office at the Academy and the office at the Washington Navy Yard (WNY). At the same time, she pursued her accredited financial counselor certification, and earned her practicum hours for that certification by doing casework at NMCRS WNY. Eventually, her experience led her to be hired in 2010 as an HQ caseworker in Arlington, Virginia.
Doing casework in the field or at headquarters has proven satisfying for Fulkerson. “I’ve always liked helping people,” she said. “When someone walks out of an NMCRS office, most of the time, we’ve solved their problem. They got money to fix their car so they can get to work, or they’re going to get to grandma’s bedside before she dies. Being able to do that to support the military is very rewarding. I love what we do, and the people we work with, and the family at NMCRS. Whenever we PCS’d, I always knew I had somewhere to go where I would fit right in.”
The added challenge of doing casework at headquarters rather than in the field is not having the face-to-face communication with clients, including nonverbal cues that help caseworkers better understand what clients need. “You really have to be a good listener,” Fulkerson said. “I use active listening to make sure I’m really hearing what they’re saying.” One of the advantages, however, of working remotely is that caseworkers can be a little more removed from the emotions that clients bring to the table. “Not being face-to-face does make it easier for us to look at the big picture and see what’s in their best financial interest and not get caught up in their emotions.”
About three-quarters of the time, however, headquarters caseworkers are working directly with NMCRS field offices or with sister organizations such as the Army Emergency Relief and Air Force Aid, or with the American Red Cross, rather than directly with service members or their families. Headquarters caseworkers tend to deal with more unusual cases or cases where clients are located far from Navy or Marine Corps bases. Fulkerson recalled helping a master sergeant whose son was in a car accident in another state and needed to be airlifted to his parents’ home. NMCRS paid for the medical transport. “We got him home right before Christmas and he’s doing well now.” Another case that stands out for her was a chief whose daughter had been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. “The family had been baking and selling cookies shaped like dogs to raise money to buy their daughter a service dog. They’d been doing all they could and just asked us for the rest of the funds they needed. I still have the photo of the girl and her dog hanging on the wall of my cubicle.”
Fulkerson’s own dog provides her biggest source of stress relief. “My dog is happy to see me when I come home. Dogs are in the moment. He makes me laugh.” Fulkerson also likes to read, travel and spend time with her family. Her sons, now 21 and 24, have both volunteered with the Society at times.
Debbie, congratulations on 10 years of service to the Society!
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso