Two Children

July 4th provides an opportunity every year to honor those serving in the military and reflect upon the sacrifices made to defend our country and its freedoms. While our thoughts naturally go to those currently serving, we often forget to think about those who returned home and fell on hard times.

Every night, thousands of veterans are homeless in cities all across the United States. It’s a national tragedy that those who served our country are now left forgotten and on the streets. For more than a century, Volunteers of America has been a leader in providing services to veterans in need, helping those who served as far back as the Civil War. Today, we are one of the largest providers of assistance to homeless vets, serving approximately 40,000 of these men and women each year. We pride ourselves not only on getting these folks off the streets, but also treating the underlying causes of their homelessness so they can live successful and independent lives over the long term. We’re also proud to work with a number of partners on this important mission, including a close relationship with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

But it’s not just homeless veterans who need our help. Children are another group who are disproportionately affected by homelessness. Summer is the time of year that many Volunteers of America affiliates are collecting school supplies for annual Operation Backpack campaigns. These campaigns ensure that all children, even those who are homeless, have the supplies they need to start school in the fall. Our largest campaign, in New York City, aims to collect enough supplies to provide backpacks to 20,000 children living in city homeless shelters.

I hope you’ll join me on our mission to ensure that no American, young or old, is forgotten and relegated to living life on the streets. Learn more about the work Volunteers of America does to help the most vulnerable among us. I also invite you to help support the mission of Operation Backpack.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

American Flag at Half-MastWithout question, the recent church shootings in Charleston were unspeakably tragic. I hesitate to say there could ever be a “silver lining” to an event so heinous, but like the rest of the world I’ve been greatly inspired by the outpouring of love and support from the Charleston community and beyond directed toward the families of those murdered and the larger Mother Emanuel AME congregation. Most poignant, though, were the healing words spoken in court by family members of the fallen, directed at the shooter. As reported by the Washington Post: “One by one, those who chose to speak at a bond hearing did not turn to anger. Instead, while he remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses. ‘I forgive you,’ Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. ‘You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.’”

People experiencing extreme emotional trauma express their feelings in a wide variety of ways. Some respond with anger and dysfunctional or self-destructive behavior. Others turn to their faith and search for the spiritual strength to pull themselves out of the darkness. Forgiveness often can be hard to find – not only forgiveness for the one who caused the pain, but also for one’s self. Grieving people often feel a great deal of personal guilt. Could they have done more to prevent the tragedy, they wonder? Were things left unresolved with the person now departed? Why were they taken and not me?

This sort of “moral injury” is something we at Volunteers of America see all the time among people we serve. Typically, these are not relatives of people who were murdered, but rather veterans still recovering from the horrors of war, or caretakers for a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s who feel helpless to prevent their loved one’s suffering. It is often easier for these people to forgive others than to forgive themselves for all the things they are unable to do. In our efforts to care for America’s most vulnerable, we must focus not only on people’s immediate problems like homelessness or hunger, but also on the underlying spiritual challenges that prevent them from living happy, successful lives. It is only after they confront pain or trauma from the past, and learn to forgive themselves, that people can truly thrive.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

Mother and DaughterThis time of year, Volunteers of America locations all over the country host special “I Remember Mama” luncheons to honor older women who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to spend Mother’s Day with their own children. These events have become beloved traditions for us, and speak to the true essence of our mission to uplift all people and help them live the most fulfilling, joyful lives possible. Mothers spend their lives putting the needs of others above their own, and I Remember Mama events provide an opportunity to let these women know that we care about them and appreciate their service.

While mothers represent pillars of love and support, we must never forget that often mothers need to be cared for, too. We see this at every level of service we offer at Volunteers of America. Many of our programs for low-income families focus on supporting single mothers with young children who need affordable housing, child care and other help. We know that housing forms the foundation for a successful life. By providing a safe and stable home, we help mothers to focus more time and attention on the care of their children.

Our programs for incarcerated women focus specifically on the relationship between these women and their children. We know that ending the cycle of intergenerational poverty depends in large part on maintaining and strengthening this bond between mother and child and ensuring that family connections don’t break down. Not only do children need care while their mothers are incarcerated, but the women need to know that they have a loving, nurturing household waiting for them once they return home. Volunteers of America is a leader nationally for innovative programs that strengthen whole communities by making sure that families affected by maternal incarceration don’t fall apart.

For older women, Volunteers of America is one of the leading providers of affordable housing and assisted living for low-income elderly people. After a lifetime spent caring for others, many women unfortunately find themselves alone without the resources available to provide for their own care. In addition to homes, we provide services like Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, which provide transportation, meals, access to health care and social interaction for seniors who might not have someone to provide this assistance.

At every stage of a mother’s life, we’re there to make sure she receives the same level of care and support that she provides to her own loved ones.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

VolunteersI’ve been greatly encouraged by the international outpouring of support that mobilized literally overnight following the recent earthquake in Nepal. Volunteers from all over the world have travelled – in some cases thousands of miles at the last minute – to areas devastated by the disaster, helping people they have never met and would otherwise never have a reason to know. This sort of inspiring scenario plays out after many high-profile natural disasters around the globe, from the tsunami in Thailand to the earthquake in Haiti. It’s only natural, after witnessing destruction and suffering in the news, to want to do something in that moment to help. But it’s not just victims of large-scale disasters in a far-off place who need our help. There are many people in our own communities who suffer and could benefit from an army of volunteers, but whose pain passes largely under the radar because it’s not part of any breaking news event.

The work we perform at Volunteers of America is centered on people who volunteer their hearts, minds and spirits to our mission of helping America’s most vulnerable. This includes two special groups of people – those who work for our organization as employees, and those unpaid people engaged in what we think of traditionally as “volunteer work.” Both groups working together are essential to the success of our programs and ensuring that our clients receive well-rounded care. Our volunteers also provide a much-needed connection to local communities. Volunteer involvement allows us to introduce the needs of our clients to those who might not know fully understand the extent of hunger or homelessness in their backyards – and in the process, make sure our clients don’t remain hidden and invisible.

Nationally, we depend on an army of more than 60,000 volunteers who offer their free time to support our programs nationwide. These volunteers perform work such as delivering meals; providing administrative support such as answering phones; collecting food or clothing; and providing professional services such as legal counsel, public relations, training and motivational speaking. These volunteers tend to remain out of the headlines because they are too busy serving those in need to seek attention.

I encourage you to look closely in your community and identify ways in which you can dedicate your own skills and interests toward helping others. Learn more about how to get involved with a Volunteers of America program near you.

Thank you for your support.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America

Lean In

In recent years, much has been said about “Lean In”, the 2013 book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that aims to offer “compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.” The book, for the most part, directs its message of combining “professional achievement with personal fulfillment” toward women with professional jobs, higher levels of education and ample economic resources.

Unfortunately, in public discourse during the two years since the book’s publication, the “Lean In” mantra has often been applied to all women, regardless of their backgrounds or current situations, as a road map to living a better life. But sadly there is no one-size-fits-all answer to life’s problems, and too often well-intentioned people lose sight of the fact that their pathway to success won’t necessarily work for everyone. Many women barely have time to care for their families while working two low-paying jobs; spending time to build a group of peers for networking or support often becomes a luxury they can’t afford. Worries about salary negotiation or achieving gender-equity in the C-suite aren’t even on the agenda.

I say this not to dismiss messages like those presented in “Lean In”, but to place them in the proper context. Many Americans, both women and men, struggle simply with daily survival and fulfilling the most basic of needs. We can’t confine our thinking to just to those concerns in our immediate line of vision. What those of us sitting in a position of privilege think of as problems pale in comparison to the challenges faced by many of the women served by Volunteers of America every day – homelessness, substandard housing, incarceration, raising children alone with limited financial support. Leaning in means something much different to these women compared to those in other segments of our society.

This Women’s History Month (and throughout the year, as well), please keep in mind the needs of women and families who struggle with challenges many of us would find unimaginable. Learn more about Volunteers of America’s programs, including those benefiting women and families.

Thank you for your support.

– By Mike King, National President and CEO, Volunteers of America