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Giving Back to Military Families

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On September 11, 2001 Jeffrey Coombs, age 42, was aboard the American Airlines flight that crashed into the World Trade Center. He left behind his wife, Ms.Christie Coombs and their three young children. Earlier this year, I met Ms. Coombs. We talked about how widows can create something beautiful out of tragedy. For her, this meant creating a foundation that gives back to military families.

In her husband's memory, Ms. Coombs started the Jeffrey Coombs Foundation in November 2001 with a yard sale and auction. Her efforts raised $50,000, and Ms. Coombs was able to provide families of 9/11 victims, who had yet to receive assistance, some much needed help. She wanted to lead by example and teach her children "to pay it forward."

Since that first yard sale, the Jeffrey Coombs Foundation, a non-profit organization, has expanded to include an annual walk/ race, a summer concert, an auction, and a Christmas tree sale. The foundation reaches family members of military service members who are either currently deployed or served.

One of the biggest events that the Foundation hosts is the Military Family Holiday Gathering. This event, created in 2006, started when Ms. Coombs thought about how difficult the holidays can be for those who experienced a death in their family or have someone living away because they are serving overseas. She recalls, "I thought about how lonely the holidays have been (since her husband died). A lot of people are lonely because of military deployment and I thought I could give these families a distraction with a party."

Ms. Coombs' party is far more extensive than just a buffet dinner. This year, as in prior years, the venue is Gillette Stadium. It is here because she explains, "A lot of families don't have the opportunity to go there." At the stadium, not only is the event free, but the night includes various activities for children and adults with everything from chair massages to a reptile petting zoo. In the past, as well as this year, there are free raffles for every age guest as well as very special guests. In the past, an Acadmey Award winning actor made an appearance, as well as a Boston Bruins player.

Ms Coombs estimates that the event costs nearly $15,000 to host, and she pours in approximately 100 volunteer hours into it. To raise money for the event, she starts the holiday season with a Christmas tree sale. This year, she enlisted the help of the non-profit organizations Cell Phones for Soldiers and Helping Heroes Home. She also has the assistance of corporate sponsor, Hasbro to donate 300 toys. Each child up receives an age appropriate gift.

More important than the gift bags, are the families and service members honored. There is memorial table set in memory of the fallen. The names of those individuals, from Massachusetts, who have died since 2001 are also displayed. It is at this Gold Star memorial table, where two mothers who never met before found each other. Each mother had a son die while in service. This is the first time they had each met another mother who experienced the same type of loss. Ms. Coombs says it is for this very reason of uniting people that hosts the party. "They (the moms) were thrilled to make a contact with one another."

Ms. Fiona Durkin, whose sister Corporal Ciara Durkin died, has attended the event since 2007 with her daughters. "The most important thing about the party is that it helps you know you're not alone. It helps Gold Star families who are struggling to find happiness after the loss to have a time where they can feel it's okay to laugh and have fun. To forget for a short time, if you will."

Military wife Ms Marcy Maloney can easily identify with Ms. Durkin's sentiments. Since 2010, she has attended the holiday party with her children. "The kids worry (about their dad) and being able to have one night of non-stop fun certainly eases their minds as well as being able to be with other kids in the same situation. That's a huge thing for my kids because as a National Guard family we don't have a base to call home."

In 2012, getting Ms. Maloney's husband, Sargent Kevin Maloney home was a challenge. In less than 24 hours before he was to return to their home, he was held in Indiana on a medical hold. Ms Maloney and their children were devastated. When Ms. Coombs found out about this situation, she used the funds from the Foundation to provide an all expense paid trip so the family could travel to Indiana.

Ms. Maloney still has gratitude for Ms. Coomb's generous gesture. Ms Maloney offers, "Words can't express what being able to put my hands on my husband after a year away and surviving Afghanistan meant to me. We never would've been able to do that, but with Christie and the Jeffrey Coombs Foundation we were able to do that. Had she not been there, it would've been another four months until we were able to see him."

Ms. Coombs says despite the long hours of fundraising and party planning she finds it deeply rewarding. "I love doing it because it puts such a smile on these children and their parents."

The Foundation will host the holiday party this year on December 16, 2013 for families of service members who were deployed anytime in 2013 or who will deploy in the first two months 2014 and for families of the fallen who were injured as a result of service in post 9/11. The website is here http://http://www.jeffcoombsfund.org/