Veterans Doing Good in 2020: This Army Vet Refused to Let Lockdown Stand in the Way of Volunteering

Volunteers with the Salvation Army utilize an emergency disaster food truck to provide hot food to homeless veterans during the Veterans Stand Down sponsored by the American GI Forum National Veterans Outreach Program.
Volunteers with the Salvation Army utilize an emergency disaster food truck to provide hot food to homeless veterans during the Veterans Stand Down sponsored by the American GI Forum National Veterans Outreach Program, Nov. 8, 2013. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Carwile/U.S. Air Force photo)

Turning 50 is certainly a milestone. Upon reaching the half-century mark, many people set health goals or embark on unique adventures to commemorate the occasion.

Claudette Mabry, an Army veteran and current USAA employee, took a different approach. Instead of celebrating herself, Mabry has pledged to volunteer on 50 separate occasions this year.

She set that goal on her birthday, Feb. 17, just weeks before the world retreated into lockdown. Despite quarantine and other pandemic-related restrictions, Mabry is determined to reach her goal and just last week completed her 38th volunteer experience.

Mabry's sense of duty and service seems to be a family legacy. Both her grandfather and brother served in the Army. Mabry followed suit, joining the service immediately after high school and serving eight years on active duty and 13 more in the Army Reserve. The family tradition continues, as Mabry's daughter has joined the Army.

As her kids were growing up, Mabry insisted that they pitch in and help serve dinners at a shelter, and work at the local food bank. She wanted them to know that they were fortunate to have food and shelter and that not everybody enjoys those luxuries, she said.

Mabry explains that her inspiration for working hard and helping others comes from her aunt, a Navy nurse who served as a commander during Operation Desert Storm. Now in her 70s, her aunt continues to work, teach and study.

Mabry says the lessons she learned in the military are keeping her on track to reach her goal despite the setbacks of 2020.

"One of the biggest [lessons I learned] is that things change," she said. "In the military, we used to have this running joke of 'Change 101!' You have to adapt and overcome. Even in corporate America, things change all the time. I'm used to it, having been in the military. I don't let it affect me. I just move on."

As for completing her goal before the end of the year, she said, "That's the second thing the military taught me: timeliness. There's a saying, 'If you're not 10 minutes early, you're late.' I definitely do not like to be late."

Before she began volunteering with the American GI Forum, Mabry was not aware of the number of veterans facing homelessness. "Just knowing that people who served our country don't have a place to stay bothers me, but it also really speaks to me. That's one of the reasons I like to give back," she said.

Founded in 1972 by a group of veterans, the American GI Forum National Veterans Outreach Program serves a minimum of 1,000 individuals every year. Working hard to restore dignity to veterans who seek comfort, support and assistance in moving from homelessness to a sustainable future, the organization provides housing, job training, employment services, daily meal service and chemical dependency recovery programs. The American GI Forum takes an individualized approach, tailoring a plan of action for each veteran client with the ultimate goal of complete self-sufficiency.

The volunteer event that affected her the most was the "Stand Down for Homeless Veterans" event hosted by the American GI Forum, she said. The one-day program provides more than 500 homeless veterans with meals, flu shots, haircuts, clothing and giveaways, as well as services and counseling.

Mabry was handing out snack packs -- packages filled with nonperishable foods, water, canned tuna, etc. -- when a woman approached her. Attired in a work uniform, she was employed but lived on the street. After receiving her snack pack, she leaned over and shyly whispered to Mabry, "Thank you so much for this. Is it OK if I get a second snack pack? I don't know when I'll be able to eat again."

"The thing that I remember is the expression on her face," Mabry said. "She was so grateful and almost seemed hesitant to ask for another one. But ... that's why we were there, to give them the items that they need."

Mabry also enjoys serving meals at the Warrior Family Support Center in San Antonio. The WFSC provides coordinated services to patients, next of kin and extended family members, with a primary focus on wounded Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom warriors. Family members of those receiving treatment can visit a comfortable environment in which to take a break, watch a movie on big-screen TVs, play video games, check email or use the internet, select a book or magazine to read, make a phone call, or grab a cup of coffee

"I've volunteered a lot, but the Warrior Family Support Center and the American GI Forum are probably my top two, just because I feel like I'm giving back to the people that served alongside me or have served our country," Mabry said.

She added that she is often overwhelmed by the gratitude of the recipients of her volunteer efforts.

"People are so grateful," she said. "That just touches my heart."

Mabry hopes to inspire others to volunteer and to increase awareness about the available opportunities. She often shares potential activities with her work colleagues and friends -- sometimes even forming teams to work on a specific project, pointing out that serving together can unify and strengthen communities.

"You get to learn so much about the people that are in our community," she said.

Inspired by Mabry's goal, one of her friends has committed to volunteering once a month.

"Any amount of time that anybody spends volunteering is helping someone or some organization," Mabry said.

She holds herself accountable by posting her experiences on social media and says she receives quite a bit of support from her network.

"My peers cheer me on," she said. "They say, 'Hey, you've got this.'

"I feel blessed. I feel fortunate that I am not in the situation that some [people] are in our community. There are always ways to give back, whether it's money or time. Not everyone has the means to give money, but everyone has time. That's my philosophy. If every single person just gave a little bit of time, our communities would be better off."

When asked what's next on her list, Mabry said she will continue to volunteer and spread the word. She knows volunteering grows on you.

"Giving back makes me feel a sense of purpose," she said. "It makes me feel joyful. The way it makes you feel, you want to do it again."

Show Your Thanks to Veterans with USAA

This Veterans Day, learn how you can show your thanks in creative ways and inspire others to do so as well. If you served, we thank you and invite you to celebrate your fellow vets with us. 

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