By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
In 1999, Danielle Smith left New York State for the first time to move from Long Island to Norfolk, Virginia, with her then-fiancé to his first duty station in the Navy. About two months after they arrived in Norfolk, Danielle received a crash course in the military lifestyle.
“There was a hurricane headed up the coast,” she recalled. “Mel, my husband, came home from work and started packing his sea bag. I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m going out to sea.’ I said, ‘What?’” Not realizing that Navy submarines were expected to go to sea before a heavy storm hits, Danielle panicked–but not for long. Although the Norfolk area experienced extensive flooding and damage as a result of Hurricane Floyd, Danielle quickly realized she wasn’t alone. “I got to know my neighbors really well, and the Navy wives all called to check on me because they knew I was a newbie. That was my first indication that these people were going to be my family and home away from home.”
From that point on, Danielle felt well-taken care of by her more experienced military spouse counterparts. “I was extremely fortunate to be surrounded by spouses who generously shared their knowledge and expertise. They took me under their wings to teach me the ropes. That is the basis of how I approach new military spouses now. I remember how helpful it was to me when I was new, and how scary it must be for other new spouses.” A lot has happened since her early days as a military spouse—in fact, this year Danielle received the Military Spouse of the Year Award for Naval Base Kitsap for her commitment to helping military families.
Even before she was a military spouse, Danielle worked in social services helping families. “I would interview them to try to figure out how they got to where they were, trouble shoot, and ultimately try to help them become self-sufficient,” she explained. This experience would come in handy later when Danielle became an NMCRS volunteer.
Her first exposure to the Society came in Annapolis, Maryland, when Danielle was pregnant with the couple’s first child, and she took the Budget for Baby workshop at NMCRS Naval Academy. After taking several months of maternity leave, Danielle returned to full-time work. A few years later, when the family was stationed at Naval Station Kitsap in Bangor, Washington, and Danielle was pregnant with her second daughter, she returned to the Society for a one-on-one Budget for Baby workshop. “I remember thinking, ‘I really like what they do at NMCRS.’ I kept it in the back of my mind for future reference.”
So when her older daughter went off to kindergarten, Danielle immediately thought of the Society. “I didn’t want to go back to work full-time and I still had another little one at home, but I wanted to use my brain and my skills to make a difference. Volunteering at the Society was a perfect match.”
Danielle became a caseworker at NMCRS Washington Navy Yard. “I sat with the caseworkers and watched what they did and asked a lot of questions,” Danielle said. “And I trained with [Director] Melodie Weddle, who has a wealth of Society information.”
“I think every military spouse should volunteer with the Society,” Danielle said. “It’s almost like taking a class in military life. There was so much I didn’t know and I learned so much. How else do you find out about the wonderful resources out there for families? There are things you take for granted, or your spouse takes care of it. For example, I’d seen a leave and earnings statement (LES) but I didn’t really know what all of it meant. At the Society, I learned how to read an LES, and I learned all the military acronyms.”
Danielle’s experience in social services prepared her well for casework. “I already know about interviewing and being sensitive to the fact that you’re asking people for a lot of personal information. It was eye opening to learn about struggles military families face. Going into the military you have this idea that you’ll be making a lot of money and shouldn’t have financial issues. But in that office we had a lot of young clients, especially young married Sailors and Marines with children who were trying to figure out how to make it all work. Many of them probably never had any financial counseling or education. Some probably hadn’t learned anything about money from their parents, so they were coming to us for guidance and education.”
“When I was working in social services, I would have a caseload of 400 to 500 families, so we didn’t always have the opportunity to delve deeply into the family’s issues. At the Society, we weren’t just handing out a check but we were educating and empowering families.”
The Smith family then moved to Groton, Connecticut, where Danielle focused on being a stay-at-home mom while also taking on more responsibility supporting her husband’s command. When they PCS’d to Millington, Tennessee, both of Danielle’s daughters were in school, so she returned to volunteering for the Society. “I loved the flexibility of volunteering. I could be home and give the girls breakfast and a hug and put them on the bus, and then be home when they got off the bus in the afternoon.”
At NMCRS Millington, Danielle earned her Level 3 Casework certification and took on the role of chair of volunteers. “I liked being able to pass off the knowledge and experience I had to new caseworkers and encouraging them. That was my first time in a supervisory role with the Society, and I enjoyed that.”
Now, the family is back in Bangor, Washington, and Danielle serves as casework lead at NMCRS Bangor. “Here, I volunteer one day a week, and have an opportunity to work with caseworkers and still be their information source.” Meanwhile, because her husband is in a leadership role on a submarine, Danielle has taken on a greater role supporting the larger community. “I’m an advisor to our Family Readiness Group and ombudsman, and I work a lot on encouraging families and planning events. This is a busy command. The Sailors are away more than they’re home, so we create a lot of activities and opportunities for spouses and families.”
Whether she’s working with families in her husband’s command or with Society clients, Danielle’s watchword has always been RESPECT. “It’s never easy for anyone to come in to ask for assistance. The best thing we can do for them is treat them with respect and kindness and without judgment. We’re not pointing a finger. It happens to everyone. The most important thing is to learn from the lesson and go forward knowing what you can do differently next time.” Demonstrating to families that she is advocating for their needs goes a long way toward building trust, she explained. “I tell caseworkers that when clients know you’re on their side, and that you’re working with them and not against them, they are more forthcoming and more comfortable.”
When she’s in the NMCRS office, Danielle loves that she’s simply a volunteer. “It’s always been extremely important for me that everyone feels equal and welcomed and supported. Your spouse’s rate or rank shouldn’t play a role in how you treat others or how others treat you. That’s always something I’ve stood by.” The same attitude applies when Danielle is working to support her husband’s command. “I feel like we’re all in this together. Your husband is out to sea just like my husband is. We’re just trying to figure all this out and make it work and have some fun. I try to show people that there are so many wonderful spouses out there and you can develop great friendships. Don’t limit yourself in who you get to know. There are so many amazing people I’ve met just from being me and being a friend.”
By: Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso