Located along the Puget Sound, in Washington, Whidbey Island is home to stunning scenery, abundant opportunities for outdoor adventures, and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, which is actually scattered across the island. That can be a challenge for service members and their families stationed at NAS Whidbey Island, according to NMCRS Whidbey Island Director Jeni Richards. “It’s six miles from the part of the base where most Sailors work to our office (and the commissary, exchange, base housing, and other services). There’s no public transportation or Navy bus. Everyone needs a car to get around the island, but some service members arrive for duty here and don’t even have a driver’s license. Paying for transportation, housing, and child care makes it expensive to live here.” So it’s not unusual that active duty Sailors and their families run into financial challenges and come to the Society for help.

Richards has helped hundreds, if not thousands of Sailors assigned to NAS Whidbey Island since starting as a Society volunteer in 2003. “I called the NMCRS office, even though I knew nothing about it, and [former director] Elton Gifford called me back the next day. The following day I met with him. I started volunteering the day after that. My education is in engineering. I’m a numbers person. So I started doing casework and, not long after that, became the casework lead.” A couple years later, Richards took a part-time position in the office as a relief services assistant (RSA). Then her family PCS’d to Nebraska, nowhere near a Society office.

When the Richards family PCS’d back to NAS Whidbey Island three years later, however, Richards picked up right where she left off, doing casework, serving as chair of volunteers, and time-sharing the RSA job. Eventually, she became the full-time RSA, which she held for two years, before being selected as office director in August. The Richards family has been a military family for 25 years.

Although her husband recently retired from active duty, Richards remains committed to serving with the Society for a variety of reasons. “First, it’s the people. We always have a great group of volunteers. There are no jobs on the island for military spouses so we have a lot of talented people coming to volunteer,” she explained. “Second, I love problem solving. If a client has a complicated situation, we take it apart and see if we can figure out a solution. Or, when we have challenges scheduling our volunteers or managing our thrift shop, I’m always trying to make it more streamlined, easier, and better for everyone—clients, volunteers, and customers.”

Understanding that those seeking financial assistance need compassion as well as tangible help, Richards offers both. “When a Navy or Marine Corps family comes in with money problems, they usually have a look on their faces as though their issue is the scariest thing ever. There is a solution here. People get so anxious about money. I tell them, ‘Let’s put money in the money box. It’s one part of your life – but not the whole thing. Let’s make a plan and move forward with your job, and your life, and your family.’ Clients leave our office relieved because we’ve helped them realize their situation is not as bad as they thought it was. Or, maybe it is as bad as they imagined, but there’s still a solution.”

Richards’ priority as a new director is to improve her office’s communications efforts to better reach the active duty service members, from the junior enlisted to senior officers, to help them understand what the Society offers how her office can help them. At a recent command leadership meeting, Richards shared that the Society had already provided nearly $400,000 in assistance to NAS Whidbey Island service members and families in the first six months of 2017. “They were shocked!”

Richards wants younger service members to understand that the Society “is where we fix things. It’s not going to the time out chair,” she laughed. “We can do so much good, proactive work for our clients. If you have a small problem, take care of it now, don’t wait until you’re really in trouble. Come talk to us when you need to go on emergency leave – before you buy an expensive airline ticket or put a car repair on a high-interest credit card. We can help.”

Aside from her work with NMCRS, Richards also teaches the consumer awareness and credit management sections of command financial specialist classes through the Fleet and Family Services office on base. In her spare time, she teaches Sunday school, volunteers with the robotics program at the local elementary school, reads, and hikes.

Richards and her husband have raised two children, one of whom has graduated from college and one is still studying. “They’ve both done volunteer hours in the NMCRS thrift shop,” she said. “When we need extra hands on deck, they’ll come in during their summer break.”

Welcome Jeni! We’re glad to have you leading NMCRS Whidbey Island.

By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso

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