Five Military Caregivers Celebrated for Being Heroes Behind the Heroes

Former First Lady Honors Caregivers with Scholarships at Rosalynn Carter Institute Summit 

AMERICUS, GEORGIA — At a celebratory dinner on October 26, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI) awarded five military spouses who have demonstrated a commitment to caring for their loved ones and taking care of themselves, with Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarships. Each recipient received a great honor and a monetary award.

The Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship provides financial assistance to military caregivers who are committed to caring for their loved one but also recognize they need support in doing so. Each of these women has reached out for the help that has empowered them to be the best caregiver. Each has completed Operation Family Caregiver (OFC), RCI’s signature military program which provides support to the caregivers of service members and veterans who have been injured. The following caregivers received Stepanek Caregiving Scholarships in 2018.

Maria Baca (Albuquerque, NM)
Maria was only 16 years old and her new husband not much older when he joined the U.S. Navy. Navy life treated them well, until his second tour of duty in Balad, Iraq, when Maria’s husband came home with a litany of ailments including sleeplessness, chronic fatigue and pain, emotional outbursts, memory loss, panic attacks, spitting-up blood, and headaches. As the couple searched for answers, they discovered that Maria’s husband was suffering from constrictive bronchiolitis, a respiratory illness caused by toxin and chemical exposure from the open air burn pits used to burn waste on military bases. Maria reached out to OFC and began working with a coach based at Florida State University. Moved by all she had learned, Maria became an advocate for those affected by burn pits. She contacted her state legislator about creating a Federal Open Burn Pit Registry, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2013, and then worked to have her home state of New Mexico enact similar legislation. The New Mexico state legislature passed the Senior Master Sergeant Jessey Baca Military Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry Act in 2015. 

Donna Dancer (Bulverde, TX)
When most people think of war injuries, respiratory illnesses are not front of mind. But since 2003, Donna has been managing her husband’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (commonly known as COPD) and obstructive lung disease, a terminal illness often associated with smoking. Donna’s husband was not a smoker, but he was exposed to torrential sandstorms and environmental toxins 
during his Naval service. The effect has been devastating. He has suffered from numerous bouts of respiratory failure which doctors have treated with long-term, high-dose steroids that have caused 

Cushing’s Disease; soft, breaking bones; and wounds related to his thinning skin. Yet Donna never thought of herself as his caregiver, and until a few years ago she neglected her own health while focusing on his. Then she found OFC, offered by her local Blue Star Families chapter. Donna’s OFC coach helped her identify and focus on her own personal goals, which keep her optimistic about the future. Today, Donna spends her days caring for her husband in their bedroom with occasional “field trips” downstairs. She takes pleasure in providing him with the best life she can. 

Shawn Moore (Kansas City, MO)
Shawn met her husband as he was retiring from a 23-year Army career that included seven tours to Afghanistan. On their very first date, he told her that he suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a police officer, Shawn already was familiar with strategies that would help him, but she began educating herself further, then shared her learnings with others. She started a Hearts of Valor support group in 2013, became an Elizabeth Dole Fellow in 2016, and then in 2017 she started a nonprofit organization, Caregivers on the Homefront, to address the shortage of supports for pre-9/11 caregivers. Around the same time, Shawn—practicing the self-care she preached—responded to a Facebook post about OFC and quickly began working with Marti Rye, a caregiver coach at Easterseals UCP. Shawn’s OFC coach proved invaluable after her husband’s attempted suicide last summer, by helping her put things in perspective and persevere one day at a time. Sharing her story has helped Shawn find peace and move forward. Today she is pursuing a master’s degree in social work and hopes to teach caregivers and their families how to access their own resilience.

Courtney Sanders (Shorewood, IL)
One of the most difficult things for caregivers is focusing on themselves, and Courtney readily admits that it is not her strength. Between her husband, an 18-year Army veteran who was deployed for the Gulf War and Project Iraqi Freedom, their four children, and the students she was responsible for in her job as a university vice president, Courtney’s plate was full. Someone else always took priority— and the challenges that came with her new marriage to a veteran left her struggling with challenges she was not ready for and had little experience in. But thankfully the people Courtney surrounded herself with encouraged her to prioritize herself, and she found support. At a retreat hosted by Hearts of Valor, she learned about and enrolled in OFC. Courtney felt an instant connection with her caregiver coach Kim Fuller, who forced her to think differently and armed her with tools to increase her resilience. Shortly after returning from the retreat, she began working for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program at Catholic Charities, and she also runs the Chicagoland Hearts of Valor Chapter. Courtney appreciates that she can share what she learned from OFC with both her clients and her coworkers. 

Jeannine Szumigala (Depew, NY)
Jeannine has an extensive family background rooted in the military: grandfathers who are veterans of World War II, uncles who are Vietnam veterans, and a father who is a Korean War veteran. They never talked much about their experiences, so when Jeannine met her husband, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, she didn’t ask too many questions. Over the next 11 years, they had five children, and her husband’s health declined. Yet when he said he needed help, Jeannine’s response was “I need help.” About that time, they received three letters from the Department of Defense, confirming that he had been exposed to particular toxins during his service and was presumed disabled. Jeannine jumped into a role as his caregiver and lost sight of the help she still needed for herself. In October 2017, she noticed a magnet for the Veterans One-stop Center of Western New York. It had been hanging on her refrigerator for months, and when she called, an OFC coach called back quickly. 
Jeannine’s coach helped her see herself as a caregiver and pointed her to resources designed for military caregivers. For the first time, Jeannine felt that someone was with her on her journey, without judgment. Last fall, Jeannine says she was lonely, depressed, isolated, anxious, and overwhelmed. Today she feels empowered, has new skills, and is no longer fearful of the future.

“I wish we could have awarded scholarships to every caregiver who applied,” said RCI’s executive director, Dr. Jennifer Olsen. “Those who were selected represent the many different experiences of military caregivers and demonstrate their great strength and resilience. I am honored to recognize and celebrate their sacrifice.”

The scholarships are named for Mattie J.T. Stepanek, a dear friend of President and Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Mattie believed that although we all have life storms, there is a champion within each of us, waiting to emerge and pull us through. He died on June 22, 2004, just a month before his 14th birthday, due to complications of Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy, a rare and fatal neuromuscular disease. During his brief life, Mattie created seven New York Times bestselling books and served as the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. His philosophy of “remembering to play after every storm” has brought inspiration and hope to millions worldwide. The Rosalynn Carter Institute’s (RCI) Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarship honors Mattie’s memory by supporting those who care for their loved ones.

“Although Mattie knew his life would probably be short, he always saw his glass as half full instead of half empty,” said Laura Bauer, Executive Director of the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation. “This year’s awardees epitomize the positivity and hope that guided Mattie’s life. They are all champions.”

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