As the wife of a wounded veteran, I find myself getting particularly emotional during the Veterans Day holiday. Considering the human element involved in recognizing our nation's heroes, my bittersweet reaction each year is especially impacted by the fact that my husband's "Alive Day" occurs only two days later. While I realize that I am a woman and it's probably exacerbated by hormones, it's also because I know what this holiday means for my own family and for others like us. As each year passes and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan continues, the number of wounded veterans and their families who join the ranks of people like us continues to grow. In essence, our pond is now filled with too many fish.
Yet, this year was different for me. I was moved beyond any tears of sadness and into a positive and determined frame of mind, and I would like to explain why. This is a true story about how one small fish can survive in a very big pond.
Meet The Fish
I am the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization called Cleaning for Heroes. We are the only program of our kind and we serve elderly and disabled veterans and first responders in need. We accomplish this mission by recruiting companies across North America to join a network of businesses that can say "Thank you" in a meaningful and practical way. This unique form of thanks come from companies on our network who agree to provide free housecleaning, maintenance and repair services at no cost to our clients.
Our program was only formed earlier this year. We obtained our 501(c)(3) recognition by the IRS in a record time of only six months. To date, the funding we receive comes from private donations or sponsorships, or out of the pockets of our founder or from our own personal funds. Our first IRS 990 filing won't be due until next year, which means we have no audited financial records to present to anyone for consideration of grants or government funding. This lack of audited financial records prevents any nonprofit from getting much-needed funding on a larger scale. Despite our lack of meaningful funding, we've grown by leaps and bounds. We have over 200 providers on our network who agree to give their professional services to elderly and disabled veterans for free.
Schonna Dungan is our Cleaning for Heroes Volunteer Coordinator, and an incredible asset to us. Her passion to assist our program is a driving force for us for continued success. She and her Navy husband, Charles, traveled from their duty station in Norfolk, VA to attend the ISSA Interclean Convention in Orlando Florida with me. They absorbed the cost of this venture from their own pocket, which to me is an incredible testimony about their support and dedication to this program.
Visit The Pond:
While preparing for our first convention at the ISSA Interclean, we were met with an impossible budget. The ISSA Interclean convention has over 700 vendors and 15,000 attendees at the Orange County Convention Center. This year's keynote speaker was the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. We were invited to attend as a vendor just a few short months ago, and we had a lot of work ahead of us to find the resources we needed to pull this event off.
With the elections overlapping our window of time, getting donations or sponsorships was incredibly difficult. No one had any money left to give.
Watch a video about the ISSA Interclean to get an idea of just how BIG this event is each year:
The Friday before the convention, we had only $1,000 in funding and had received in-kind donations of products or services to reduce our overhead. What we didn't have was an exhibit for our booth, which was estimated at over $3,000 just to rent a basic display for a few days. With nothing more than faith and hope to guide us, I bought my own plane ticket and embarked on a journey of incredible unknowns.
On the first day of setup, we stared at a 10'x10' booth with nothing but a cement floor defining our space. We had a lot of work to do, and a miracle was needed to get it done.
I am reprinting a portion of Schonna's recent blog post about her experiences from attending the ISSA Interclean Convention. What Schonna experienced this week touched me. She taught us that we all have the ability to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, despite the overwhelming odds against us. She also taught me that it's okay to operate on nothing but faith.
Today I realized just how incredibly small I am. I mean in every way. Awhile back I started volunteering with a nonprofit called Cleaning for Heroes. My friend Torrey Shannon is the Executive Director and she has talked about little else since the early spring. When she asked for my help, of course I said "yes."
So she asked me a couple of weeks ago, half joking, if I wanted a "free vacation" in Orlando. She started telling me about this convention thing and I thought there is no way I can pull that off.
I offered to help in any way I could without committing to come down. But I went to work on making that possible. After a logistic marathon we are here and the convention starts tomorrow.
But today changed my complete view of myself. I have been to trade shows before and I thought I knew what to expect. WRONG! The sheer enormity of the Orlando Convention Center was overwhelming.
When we finally found and went into the exhibit hall I literally started to have a panic attack.
We found our booth location (Torrey had the map in her head!) it was so small. Ten feet by ten feet in a room the size of most shopping malls... it was so so small in the sea of HUGE corporations and industry giants.
She goes on to explain where the lesson in our impossible situation was to be learned:
Torrey made an amazing connection with a local company to print banners and bring us a pedestal table, tall chairs and poster stands.The best part was they did it for FREE. They just wanted to give back. I LOVE THAT!
But we are still so small. A delegation of four people. A new fledgling nonprofit. A tiny speck in this sea of enormous potential.
I see many things when I look around this room. Fifteen thousand people are expected to attend. BIG corporations have spent my entire annual household income on one display for their booth. And we are here among them, not for our own gain, but to try and make a difference for those who serve us.
The need of our veterans and first responders is as great as the convention center is enormous. And we are still that small organization. But eventually we will grow and we will reach so many more, and be able to help more and more people.
It is humbling to think I can have any part in this enormous undertaking. That I can be here at the beginning of something so amazing. That this convention is taking place DURING Veterans Day Week.
So here I am, realizing that I am a little fish swimming in many ponds. I am in a pond of wounded veterans that is populated with too many fish. I am also a small fish in a very big pond, seemingly fighting against a current. The fact is, our program will succeed just as we've continued to do so far.
We don't quit, and we won't give up. It's just not in us.
Why? Because when all the fish come together in a big pond, great things can happen.
See you next year!
Note to readers: This is an updated version of a previous blog entry. The author deleted factual content to promote goodwill and protect the identity of a party involved in a potential legal matter.