Giselle Schneider is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for her leadership and commitment to the ideals of the YMCA.
I have been inspired by Michelle Obama and Dr. Biden’s Joining Forces Initiative and all the work they have done on behalf of military families, so I am honored to be a White House Champion of Change. Upon reflecting about what service means to me for this event it all comes back to my son. When my son enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of High School, in September 2005, I was so proud- nervous, but proud. I was so appreciative that he wanted to serve and give back to his country that had given him so much. It was not until I attended his send off at Camp Lejeune prior to a deployment, did I sense the true level of sacrifice and dedication it took from the entire family to support our service members in our Armed Forces. I saw that I was not alone in my worry, and it was heartbreaking to see all the young children impacted by their parent deploying. Some children were too young to fully understand why mommy or daddy had to go and serve, and to see their anxious faces stressed and confused broke my heart. My family immigrated to this country from Cuba, my mother, brother and I came first, and two years later my father was able to join us. When I saw those children, I reverted back and remembered that feeling of separation and I knew I wanted to help comfort those children. I will never forget those faces. They provided me with the motivation and focus to seek out an organization that was making a real difference in the lives of military children.
When I got home from Camp Lejeune, I researched online for programs that assisted military children to see where I could make the biggest impact. I learned that the Armed Services YMCA was a top-rated military charity, with one of the highest Charity Ratings (top 2%) nationwide according to Charity Navigator. The Armed Services YMCA depends on over 14,000 volunteers each year to make military life easier for our junior-enlisted military and their young families. These young heroes and their families are voluntarily serving and sacrificing daily so we can continue to enjoy our freedoms and way of life. The junior troops don't get paid very much and can barely afford the basics for their families. The ASYMCA, in close coordination with military leaders, focuses on fulfilling the highest priority gaps in these required programs and services. Our junior military troops and families deserve all the help we can possibly provide with low and no cost programs and the ASYMCA is able to impact nearly 500,000 young troops and their families each year with the help of volunteers and generous donations. It is such a testament to the power of those that step up to help that they are able to help so many military families.
The Operation Kid Comfort program has many beloved volunteers, such as Kelly a lead quilter from Idaho. Kelly has been volunteering with the Armed Services YMCA’s Operation Kid Comfort program for over four years. She is self-motivated, creative and believes strongly in the program. Addie, a lead quilter from Florida steers a great group of quilters who have been making quilts for the program for the past five years. Three of our local quilters, Karen, Cheryl, and Stephanie have become my right hand ladies. They not only make quilts and pillows, but assist in our quilt-a-thons with local businesses such as our great supporter SAIC. These ladies are a sample of the fantastic dedicated volunteer quilters who are the heart of the Operation Kid Comfort program. Together we work as a team to help make military life easier for the children of our deployed military service members. These ladies have become my personal friends. While I provide guidance, I give them total reign on their creativity, so those they recruit to volunteer with the program will never tire of the eight hours of sewing it takes to craft each and every personalized homemade quilt for a military child.
One of my favorite parts of the Armed Services YMCA program that sets it apart is that it is a tangible item for a young child to hold, touch and connect with that is tailored with favorite family photos and memories that are memorialized forever. It also affords the volunteers the opportunity to get know each family that they are trying to help through their treasured photos and activities.
In 2012, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and had to begin treatment. I informed the families and volunteers expecting quilts to let them know I was in treatment, not so they would be concerned, but rather to explain my absence when needed, because the last thing I would want them to think is that I was unresponsive to their needs. I found that in sharing my story took away the stigma of keeping it a “secret” and I discovered that some of the quilters were survivors, and people opened up and shared their story in turn with me. As I continue my cancer treatment, their shared experiences, concern, and prayers have helped give me strength, courage and healing. It is a tremendous feeling to have people rooting for you all over the country.
I have not let cancer dampen my spirit for military families. On the contrary, I forge ahead with a positive outlook and a strong desire to continue and grow the program with the help of additional funding and skilled volunteers.
My advice to potential volunteers is to find a passion that connects with your experience or skill set. Even if you are not skilled, take on the challenge to train yourself. We had a volunteer so passionate about the program, that she went to a local quilt shop and took a quilting class. If you are passionate and enjoy the rewards of giving back, nothing will stop you from achieving your goal.
Giselle Schneider is the Operation Kid Comfort Program Coordinator at the Armed Services YMCA in Springfield VA