NMCRS President, Chief Executive Officer, ADM Steve Abbot, USN (Ret.) presenting Winnie Ursini with her 10 year service anniversary certificate.

Although she’d earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and her master’s degree in education, Winnie Ursini found the job market in New York tough for new teachers. “Someone suggested that I teach overseas, so I applied to the Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DODDS),” Winnie recalled. “They were the only international schools that didn’t require an application fee. I applied and they called me up and said, ‘How do you feel about Iceland?’”

Soon Winnie found herself teaching biology, health, and computer science at a small DODDS school in Iceland. “I really enjoyed teaching there, and I got an introduction to military life. We all lived on base and there was a feeling of camaraderie—we were all in it together and we would make the best of the situation.”

“That’s the same feeling I have with the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society,” she continued. “We’re all a team no matter where we are. Everybody is pulling in the same direction to do the best they can to help our clients and honor our donor’s.”

Winnie met her husband, a naval officer, while they were both living in Iceland, and Winnie soon transitioned from teaching military kids to parenting them. The family had PCS’d to Hawaii, and Winnie stayed home with their three-year-old son while her husband was deployed. “I’d already experienced one deployment with a young one, and I another one was coming up,” she said. “I knew I had to find something to do with adults!”

She learned about the Society at a spouse meeting and started volunteering at NMCRS Barber’s Point, which has since closed. “It was a very small office—it was a satellite office of NMCRS Pearl Harbor. The office was open from 8 to noon three or four days a week. It was very slow—maybe one or two clients a day! I’d just started training to be a caseworker and had done a few cases when Naval Air Station Barber’s Point was closed.”

The family PCS’d to Jacksonville, Florida, where Winnie got a teaching job, and then to Dallas, Texas, where she lived too far from a base to volunteer for the Society. Then they received orders to Whidbey Island, Washington. “That was during the centennial of the Society, and they were showing a free movie on base. I took my son and before the movie started, former NMCRS Whidbey Island Director, Elton Gifford, stood up and talked about the Society. I thought it was a sign, so I started volunteering as a caseworker at NMCRS Whidbey Island.” Winnie volunteered for two years before being hired as a relief services assistant, a position she held for two more years. Then the family PCS’d to Tampa, Florida, where Winnie volunteered from home. “I helped develop the open book policy test, which volunteers completed. Now we have the NMCRS University online classes.”

Eight years ago, Winnie’s family got orders to Washington, DC, and she came to work at NMCRS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. “I’ve always gone into my jobs at NMCRS, whether I was a volunteer or a paid employee, thinking my job is to do everything I can to make somebody else’s job easier or take the load off a service member, so they can do their job. I am here to help the people who call me. Caseworkers in the field have a hard job, so I do what I can to make it easier.”

One of the biggest challenges that comes with working at headquarters is the amount of knowledge employees need to have to deal with the complexity of the cases that come up to HQ. “People expect us to know all kinds of things and it takes a while to learn all that information. When you work in a field office, you see a small section of the world. Each office has a unique community culture and clientele. Some offices are more involved with retirees, some with active duty, and others deal more with clients from other services. When you work at HQ, you have to know everybody. We work collaboratively though, so if I don’t know something, somebody else knows it. We have one big brain. We might hear about 100 different issues every day,” Winnie said. “There’s no such thing as an average case.”

“At HQ we work with quite a lot of younger, medically retired service members. They normally move back to their home of record, which is not usually close to a military base. So their cases are handled at HQ. We work very closely with them. We walk them through and help them understand their benefits. A lot of times, when they were being processed for retirement, they may not have been paying 100% attention to what was happening because of pressing health issues. Because the military rating and VA rating systems are completely different, there’s a lot they have to learn.”

Winnie particularly appreciates being able to help not only service members but the volunteers who help service members. “I love the people who volunteer for us. I think it’s a very special person who chooses to spend their time helping others. Volunteers are wonderful to talk to. They look at the bright side of things. A lot of times we’re discussing what could be the worst thing that’s happened in someone’s life, but nobody looks at it that way. We think about how we can make it better for them, so it’s not the worst part – but the beginning of a better part.”

At the same time, because clients are often at low points of their lives, they express their frustration when they call the Society. “We get phone calls from clients who need to vent or blame the person who’s on the phone for their problems. I respond with empathy. I explain that I appreciate the fact that they’re feeling a lot of stress and they’re in a terrible situation. I find that just having somebody listen to them helps them be able to deal with the situation. I don’t argue with them or judge them.”

Thank you for your years of dedicated service to the Society and your empathetic presence, Winnie!

 

By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso

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