By October 11, 2012
Through hours of volunteer work, Capt. William Mendelsohn and his wife, Debra, have labored to instill in their children the same kind of passion for service that led Mendelsohn to join the Army National Guard.
"I'm hoping that does wear off on them and gets them inspired in whatever they do to give back," Debra Mendelsohn said. The Mendelsohns, along with teenagers Emelie, 17, and Douglas, 15, have been recognized as AUSA's 2012 Volunteer Family of the Year. Capt. Mendelsohn is a fulltime medical logistics officer for the California Army National Guard.
As so often happens with the Mendelsohns, events in their own family life turned into an opportunity to help others when Bill was deployed for a year.
"When my husband first deployed back in 2005, we were very new to the National Guard and had never experienced a deployment. I knew nothing" about insurance, benefits for military families, and approaches for helping the children cope with the temporary loss of their father, Debra said. Other National Guard families have additional problems related to the soldier's leaving a civilian job to deploy, she added.
By the end of her husband's year away from home, Debra had become involved with the unit's Family Readiness Group, an organization of family members, volunteers, soldiers and civilian employees that supports the families. She now is a lead volunteer for the entire Army component of the California National Guard and her whole family regularly attends FRG events.
"I decided I didn't want anybody else go through what I went through," she said.
That first deployment also led to an ongoing volunteer project honoring troops and veterans in the Mendelsohn's hometown of Claremont, Calif. While they were still in elementary school, the kids were named City of Claremont Community Heroes for 2005 for the creation, with their mother, of the Claremont Heroes military appreciation program.
Douglas said he and his sister saw that other neighboring communities had banners thanking members of the military for their service. "We were just wondering why ours didn't," he said.
Typically, Debra saw no reason their community couldn't, so long as their family took steps to make it happen.
"It was surprisingly controversial," she recalled. As a college town, Claremont included residents who did not want to indicate any approval of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I used it as an opportunity to teach my children about freedom of expression and freedom of speech and attacking problems," she said. "We asserted, as we continue to assert, that this was a program of gratitude, that this was a program to say thank you not just to those serving but to all who have served, and their families."
Without official support from the city, the Mendelsohns forged ahead anyway. They raised $4,000 of private money to create lawn signs, which did not require city council approval.
"We strategically distributed them and asked people to put them on their front lawns on Memorial Day. Claremont's population is about 35,000 people, so when 800 signs appeared on Memorial Day, it made quite a visual impact," Debra said.
"The next week we got a call from the city saying, 'How about that banner program,'" she remembered.
The Mendelsohns raised another $40,000 through their grassroots organization to cover the initial production cost of the banners. Over time the city council came to understand that the program is about people, not politics, and the entire community now supports the effort, Debra said.
Claremont Heroes administers the program with the help of the local American Legion post, while the city hangs, takes down and cares for the banners. This year 150 heroes banners will hang in Claremont from Veterans Day to New Years Day.
Unlike the families of many fulltime soldiers who live on military bases during a deployment, the families of National Guard soldiers may be the only ones they know going through the absence of a spouse or parent. In their work with the Family Readiness Group and other volunteer activities, the Mendelsohns have tried to help Army families and to explain their situation to those who have never had to live through a deployment.
When Capt. Mendelsohn was deployed to Iraq last year, he realized the Boy Scouts he had mentored as assistant scoutmaster would be missing a leader for a year. To help maintain the connection, Mendelsohn attended a meeting using Skype.
"This way I could meet with all the boys at once. It was an opportunity for them to see my surroundings directly," he said. He moved the computer's camera around his containerized housing unit (CHU) so the boys could see where he was living.
"I think seeing and communicating with them over Skype brought the deployment of soldiers home for them," he said. "The National Guard is not around other military families. Most people in our community don't have a direct relationship with the military."
As a member of the troop, Douglas has earned the rank of Eagle Scout, an effort that requires that the scout lead other volunteers in a community service project. He also is a member of a Venture scout crew whose members play the bugle at civic events. Douglas is considering a career in the military.
The Mendelsohns regularly integrate service into their activities. Emelie's high school theater honor society competes to collect the most canned food for charity while Trick or Treating. Both she and her brother donated money and materials for charities as part of their Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations.
"We don't do this for recognition or awards. We do this because it's the right thing to do," Debra said. "It makes life worth living."