When people ask me why I joined the Army, I usually talk about my desire to serve, wanting to challenge myself, and the satisfaction and pride that I feel being able to help my soldiers learn new skills and develop as leaders. I could gush for hours about happy I am that I signed on the dotted line at 17 years old.
It would all be true, but it wasn’t why I joined. I usually leave out the less glamorous reality – I would likely never have served if it hadn’t meant free college through my ROTC scholarship.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago as the eldest child of a single mother. I attended a large public high school, spent hours every day commuting on the bus and subway, failed multiple classes, pawned 35 cents off my friends daily so that I could buy reduced-price lunch, and never intended to pursue education beyond a high school diploma – if I even made it that far.
I was mostly concerned that if I applied and was accepted into a university, I would never be able to pay for it. Parental assistance wasn’t a reality, and for a long time I let the fear of disappointment prevent me from considering that route.
All of that changed when I stumbled on the Army’s website. Free college and a commission as an officer? I was sold.
By some incredible stroke of luck, I made the cut. That unusual success changed my entire attitude toward my life. I suddenly had people telling me (as wrong as I was sure they were) that I could be a leader—that I had the ability to take care of and to inspire others.
From my first terrible APFT, at which all of the older cadets circled back and ran an extra two laps to finish with me, to graduating with the top GPA in my ROTC Battalion and being trusted to take over my own platoon, I found myself in an echo chamber of support.
Through the military, I learned about brotherhood and the importance of building up the people around you.
I have done my best to take that lesson with me from Chicago to Pittsburgh, to Missouri, and most recently, here to Los Angeles.
The Mission Continues Los Angeles 2nd Service Platoon is a volunteer group geared toward veterans, and is focused on youth development and education in Boyle Heights, a low-income neighborhood in East LA. When I took over as platoon leader in 2015 we were almost brand new. We had a few dedicated volunteers, but not many. We didn’t have an operation.
Two years later I barely recognize the platoon I stepped into. Now we have strong connections with several schools and organizations in Boyle Heights and have completed countless service projects both with and for the students. People reach out to the platoon when they need help – we rarely have to look hard for new projects or opportunities to serve the community.
When I look at the students in Boyle Heights, I see myself. I see kids who have the drive and ability to make it, but who might not yet have the confidence or the resources to try. I know they can get there.
I’ve taught a group of teenage girls how to use a drill, and saw the way their faces lit up when they were able to build a bench completely by themselves. I’ve negotiated with parents in terrible Spanish to be able to give their kids a ride to an LA Galaxy game to thank them for helping us revitalize their school campus. I’ve talked to students about college and shared my own experiences with them. I’ve spent 12 hours getting sunburned while waiting on Home Depot deliveries. I’ve painted murals. I’ve put volunteers and kids in charge of things when they weren’t sure they knew how, and watched them crush it.
The military helped me push myself past the limits I had set for myself at a time when I needed it the most. In the same way that my mentors did, I hope that I can look these next generations in the eye and tell them, genuinely, “you can change the world.”
I serve and will continue to serve for all of them.
On Earth Day, TV personality and veteran advocate Jon Stewart joined Mission Continues volunteers to help restore the Bronx Forest. We worked with Bronx River Alliance, New York City Parks, and community volunteers to remove invasive species, add reinforcements to native species, blaze a new path in the Bronx Forest, and clean the Bronx River.
Jon Stewart welcomed the crowd of volunteers, saying, “Our country – our world – has so many problems, veterans and first responders are solutions waiting to happen. When we can combine veterans and first responders to our problems, we can do anything.”
It was heartening to see veterans from across New York City gather to protect the Bronx Forest’s natural landscape. This service project was one of many led by The Mission Continues where veterans mobilized together to solve challenges specific to their communities. In the Bronx, The Mission Continues’ local New York 2nd Service Platoon is committed to neighborhood beautification and arts development.
April 14, 2017 By Stephanie Grimes, City Impact Manager
Whatever you did with your Saturday, the Pittsburgh 1st Service Platoon did something you’ll definitely want to hear about. This platoon pioneered a special kind of project on April 8th — one empowering women veterans and civilians.
This platoon tackles neighborhood revitalization in a part of Pittsburgh called Hazelwood, and this project’s objective was to give the library classroom at the Center of Life a makeover. Over 50 women veterans, family members, Center of Life staff, and Hazelwood residents, brought the vision of the Hazelwood’s children to reality.
Center of Life is a community empowerment organization in Hazelwood that offers academic, music and sports programming. They are committed toempowering families to bring economic revitalization to their communities. For this project, women of the Hazelwood community and female staff at Center of Life worked with women of the Pittsburgh 1st Platoon to plan, and execute the #HerMission Library Room Makeover project.
During the project planning stage, local Navy veteran Lauren DelRicci, jumped right in as a project lead. This was her first time serving with The Mission Continues, and she said, “I can already tell, the sense of group accomplishment will motivate me to continue serving.” As for this project’s significance, Lauren said, “An all-female service project shines as a beacon of inspiration for women everywhere, especially female veterans.”
We also welcomed women from Wounded Warrior Project, Team Rubicon and Team Red White and Blue to come out to serve alongside their sisters. Most impactful of all, we gave leadership roles to platoon members who hadn’t yet had the opportunity to step up and show us what they are made of. After trying their hand at leading, several women veterans expressed interest in taking on formal leadership roles within the platoon, and even the possibility of working towards becoming a Platoon Leader.
This project was funded through a generous grant the Center of Life received from The Heinz Endowments. Project activities included making puppets while teaching children how to sew and building a puppet theater and a reading loft. We painted the walls and bookshelves to go with the room’s new theme, “The Sunrise.” We ordered new lighting, organized books and games, upholstered new seating made from milk crates, and put together new furniture from IKEA.
By the end of the day, the platoon had inspired female veterans to join in unity through service at home while showing the children and families of Hazelwood that there are people who care about them and are invested in their success.
Immediately, we reminisced about the unique and special relationship The Mission Continues has helped forge between our Central Florida veterans and youth. In an effort to bring positive role models into the lives of juvenile justice-involved youth, a program called Project Bridge has teamed the two unlikely pairs, and it has led to meaningful and impactful work for so many.
Since September 2015, HBI and Eckerd Kids Project Bridge have partnered with The Mission Continues Orlando 1st Service Platoon. With this innovative partnership, veterans can continue serving at home while solving specific challenges in their communities.
This weekend’s Alpha Class 2017 Orientation in San Diego is pretty special. As you may know, each class’s Orientation takes place in a different city, but this time, for our 20th Orientation, we are returning to San Diego, where we held our first ever Orientation back in 2012. Since then we’ve developed a lot of momentum and sustained service there. This class of Fellows and Platoon Leaders can look forward to spending a day helping the San Diego service platoons’ efforts with some of the city’s public schools.
San Diego has over 1 million residents, and over 100,000 of them are veterans. We’ve worked hard to establish a strong presence through the San Diego 1st and 2nd Platoons, both of which have dedicated members who are totally rockin’ it. They concentrate on City Heights, a densely populated area where 85% of K-12 students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
We work with the San Diego Unified School District to help enact community-based school reform so that City Heights can have the kind of quality schools every student deserves. Our goals are to help improve literacy, overall graduation rates, and to make the schools safe and attractive. So far the platoons have renovated and beautified a community garden, added playground features to Rosa Parks Elementary, and more. Continue reading “Alpha Class 2017’s First Act of Service: Supporting San Diego Schools”
January 22, 2017 By Mike Plue, San Diego 2nd Platoon
On the blog we’ve discussed the identity and experiences of post-9/11 veterans a lot. But we also want to hear from pre-9/11 veterans with their wealth of experience and dedication to service. The two generations share more in common than meets the eye. We interviewed Mike Plue, a stalwart member of the San Diego 2nd Service Platoon, to talk about his perspective and experience as a pre-9/11 veteran.
Over the years he has collected these inspiring takeaways:
The veteran bond transcends generation
Throughout my civilian career I have come into contact with veterans, and regardless of branch or era, I have felt an immediate bond and higher level of trust. (I even was hired by my current employer based upon the referral of a veteran that I met over 10 years before.)
But what really solidified this lesson for me was when I had the honor of visiting the VA hospital in San Diego delivering care packages. I spoke with veterans who had their careers in the military and some who had only served for a few years. All who I spoke with had worked to establish successful civilian careers, and had raised families after coming home. At the end of the day, all agreed that the military was the greatest time in their life, and that enlisting was the best decision they could have made.
I’ve realized whether you are a pre-9/11 or post-9/11 veteran, there is always the common calling to get involved with something “bigger than yourself.” With time comes perspective, and like the veterans I visited at the VA, you realize the calling to serve whether it be to pick up a rifle or a paint brush. Even after we leave active duty, we are a band of brothers and sisters, and we are here to make the world a better place.
Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to making America more equal and free. His words inspired many to join the Civil Rights Movement, and still inspire us today. At The Mission Continues, this legacy moves us to continue strengthening communities through service. “The main pillars of Dr. King Jr.’s mission and legacy — peace, justice, equality, freedom — are some that certainly resonate with others who have dedicated their lives to service,” says Emily Ferstle, our City Impact Manager in Detroit.
We hold MLK Day especially close to our hearts because, as Emily puts it, our volunteers “in many ways, are standing on his shoulders and those of the many who have come before us to seek justice and healing, for ourselves and for the most underserved, marginalized members of society.”
In today’s blog, we want to highlight just a handful of this year’s many service projects honoring Dr. King and what he stood for.
We will begin in Atlanta, where it all began for Dr. King. His hometown is where he attended college, became an assistant pastor, and in 1957, began his tenure as chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Atlanta is also where King was arrested for the first time during a sit-in demonstration in 1960.
In the very city of his birth, life, and final resting place, we will honor him through service. Next weekend, the Atlanta 1st Service Platoon returns to Bellwood Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club. With projects for the entire family, the platoon will be focusing on painting a learning center and benches, in addition to preparing garden boxes for the neighborhood’s youth to use and enjoy.
In Detroit, Dr. King joined the 1963 Walk to Freedom and delivered a speech that would later develop into his “I Have a Dream” speech. Detroit’s Walk to Freedom had an unprecedented 125,000 person turnout and played an essential role as a “practice run” for the highly publicized March on Washington.
To honor the role Detroit played in the Civil Rights Movement, we continued the work we began at Central High School during Operation Motown Muster, when we worked for an entire week to help revitalize the city.
“When the students and teachers were asked what their top priorities were for improvements around the school, FRESH PAINT was the resounding answer,” said Emily Ferstle, who is the City Impact Manager in Detroit. For the MLK Day of Service, the Detroit 1st and 2nd Platoons took the school’s request for a fresh coat of paint and teamed up to paint hallways and bulletin boards throughout the school.
These aesthetic differences help encourage the students to succeed put their best foot forward. Emily explains, “new paint and the right colors have the ability to evoke feelings of belonging, motivation and safety. Additionally, helping with the upkeep of Detroit’s oldest high school sends the message to the students and teachers that they are valued.”
As the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. served as a national stage for the Civil Rights Movement. As we all know, it was where Dr. King delivered his first national address in 1957 at the Lincoln Memorial, and returned in 1963 to deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech for the March on Washington. As this is perhaps King’s most iconic moment, it’s only fitting that we serve in this city for MLK Day in an iconic way — on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, right on the MLK Day parade route!
We returned to Democracy Prep in Congress Heights to build a shed for the school’s garden, refinish the school’s stage, remove dilapidated outdoor seating, do some painting, and more. These things will make a visible difference, as Connor Mallon, our City Impact Manager in D.C., tells us the school “is located in one of the most underserved areas of Southeast D.C. and the disparity and need can be blatant.”
When veterans serve in this community, their pasts can sometimes bring them and people in the community closer together. Connor explains, “many of us have struggled to overcome hardships at home and at war. These parallels can be an important icebreaker when we’re engaging with struggling communities.”
Remembering our past can inspire our vision for the future. This is a day we celebrate the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, and use its memory to remind ourselves that there is still much work ahead of us. Along these lines, Connor mentioned that the closest thing to Dr. King’s dream of equality he’s experienced was being in the military. He saw “men and women of all backgrounds and ethnicities fighting together for a common purpose.”
He concluded, “I hope that our veterans and the community members who attended our project walked away with that same sense of unity.” With this, we can work together, side by side, to build a better tomorrow for ourselves and the next generation of Americans.
As we gathered as an organization and in our teams to discuss our goals for the upcoming year, we also thought it important to take stock of moments in 2016 where we felt like we totally rocked it, so that we may continue to learn and grow. To that end, each member of the Regional Resource team, our amazing project planners, took some time to look back on 2016 and pick out one project that really spoke to them.
Regional Resource Specialists are dedicated to planning and managing their projects, and often collaborate and work alongside Mission Continues volunteers. Creating a meaningful and impactful experience for volunteers, community members, and The Mission Continues is what a RRS is all about.
Here’s a look at what they came up with.
Women Veteran’s Leadership Summit, New Orleans
Damion Martin, Central Region
Since this was our first ever Women Veteran’s Leadership Summit, I felt some pressure to not mess up. I really enjoyed seeing the excitement, appreciation, and engagement of the women veterans and non-veterans involved as they took complete ownership of their roles in making this summit a success. Everyone wanted to help prove its worth and make it an annual event.
We found a local school (Langston Hughes Academy) as part of the New Orleans FirstLine Schools charter system that partnered with The Edible Schoolyard program to provide healthy relationships with healthy eating in schools and at home.
We were collaborative from the start and worked alongside the AmeriCorps VISTA program that placed teachers in the school to ensure the kids had the encouragement, education, and healthy eating habits to carve out a path to achieve their dreams. What helped us become successful with this project was getting to know the volunteer force, really taking time to find kick-ass projects, and including students during the prep days.
Bravo Orientation 2016, Rainier Beach High School, Seattle
Joshua Arntson, National Events
Rainier Beach Valley is one of the most diverse communities in the country. It is underserved, so having our orientation service project at the high school was really important to the local community and the Seattle 1st Platoon.
Our volunteers had already done a couple projects in the local area but this really helped immerse the platoon in that community. One of the major tasks that the school asked us to look into was revitalizing the front of the school. We were able to dig up all the dead plants, bushes and trees and replace them with new ones. We also brought in several cubic yards of mulch to give it a fresh look and brought in several cubic yards of gravel to refurbish the existing path that was overgrown with weeds and would flood when it rained. It is now handicap accessible as well.
One of the things that made it a special project was being able to work with Nick Sullivan (Seattle 1st Platoon) and Ryan Mielcarek (South Sound 1st Platoon). Those two are what all Platoon Leaders should strive to be. They really care about what they are doing and will go above and beyond to help others. The success of the service project could not have happened without them. We were able to get all the project task completed and make a significant impact at this most deserving school.
United is Service Campaign, Orting Washington
Teresa Crippen, West region
In the beginning of September, I had the opportunity to attend Shawn Durnen’s first project as the Platoon Leader for the Tacoma 1st Platoon in Orting, Washington.
We had meetings with the partners and put together a plan for a successful day for the platoon and volunteers. With about a month to go until the project, we got word that Expedia would like to send 100 volunteers. With this new addition of volunteers, we had to go back to the drawing board for more projects. It was great to see Shawn’s ideas and help him build them out to accommodate the most volunteers and stay within the budget.
Overall, the project at Washington Soldiers Home and Colony was a great learning experience on both sides. I was able to see the different skill sets of our PLs and identify tools that would be helpful while planning for their future events. Shawn got some insight into the amount of prep and diligence needed when it comes to the planning and execution the details of a project.
The biggest takeaway came at the end of the service day when the platoon was sitting around the fire pit gathering area that was created during that day. After all the volunteers left, the platoon stayed behind and talked. It may have been subtle, but it reinforced the community that is behind the platoon.
So while we were there for the work, which all got done, we were also there to build community. And thanks to Shawn, that happened for the platoon at Washington Soldiers Home.
Charlie Orientation 2016, Little Earth, Minneapolis
Jess Peter, Midwest region
The Charlie Orientation project at Little Earth really showed me what buy-in and teamwork looked like.
Our hosts at Little Earth of United Tribes were working collectively from the beginning to bring us the voices of the residents and their priorities. This meant that there was a strong willingness to support us during planning, prep, and execution from their staff and teen program. We were all on the same page and executed through the pouring rain to deliver a complete project.
We worked as a team, taking ownership over different areas and improving overall ability to plan and execute. Each of us had ownership to make decisions independently, knowing the overall goals.
United in Service Campaign, Ellis Island, New York City
Marvin Cadet, Northeast region
This project was part of our greater effort of honoring those we lost on September 11th, 2001. The Mission Continues, in partnership with the National Parks Service, hosted a service project revitalizing parts of Ellis Island. Flood waters from Hurricane Sandy covered almost all of Ellis Island, damaging a majority of its infrastructure. Repairs and recovery efforts help restore Ellis Island, but this was the first time a large group of veterans who call New York City and New Jersey home were able to make contributions to that effort.
The platoons filled three 30 yard dumpsters to the brim with old office furniture, refurbished 8 statues, painted the interior of one of the towers in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and mulched well over 20 trees.
Working with the National Parks Service and supporting their vision for Ellis Island was an honor. This project was particularly meaningful to me after having completed some formal project management training, I really put that learning to use on the job! Our Platoon Leaders and Fellows based here in the city enjoyed leading parts of the project as well.
Veterans Day, National Day of Service, DC
Katrina Hill, Southeast region
All five DC Platoons came together at the Malcolm X Opportunity Center and Congress Park (two of our operational host sites in Southeast that are across the street from one another) for a great Veterans Day project. We cleaned up existing guarding beds, built adult exercise stations, refurbished picnic tables, fixed up a sad looking set of bleachers, and hauled thousands of pounds of junk, amongst other things.
This project was a particular favorite of mine because it was high impact but relatively low stress. Jackie, our DC 1st Platoon Leader, really pitched in with the planning, and all of our DC PLs stepped up to be team leaders on the project day.
As with all of our projects in the Southeast region, we developed projects that include a wide variety of tasks so that volunteers of all ages and skill levels can meaningfully participate.
In my former life as an AmeriCorps NCCC Team Leader, we talk a lot about the “why behind the what” – essentially connecting what you’re doing to the “bigger picture.” We were fortunate to have Anthony, the site director at Malcolm X, share his vision for the center and really connect those dots. At the end of the day, not only was there a strong visual transformation of the site, our volunteers understood some of the more intangible ways that their labor had had a positive impact.
Finally, we completed a kick ass #mannequin challenge during our Veterans Day project. Still waiting for it to go viral…
The Seattle 2nd Platoon is one of The Mission Continues’ newest platoons. The Platoon and its Platoon Leader Matt Moroge, reported for its first service project in Marysville, WA at the Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary School recently during our Veterans Day service campaign. The school’s student body is 95% Native American, so it was only fitting that this project tipped its hat towards the strong Native American culture that makes up the Pacific Northwest. Continue reading “In Seattle, A New Platoon with a Mission”
This past week Platoon Leaders and Team Leaders gathered in Philadelphia for our annual Platoon Leader Summit. Over the weekend they learned skills from experts and each other that will help them create kickass service events, build relationships in their communities, and cultivate a thriving platoon.