“They served all of us. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye”. These words were spoken by President Reagan regarding the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Tracey E. Williams-Hunter (“Tracey”), paused for a moment of silence along with the other members of her battalion. January 28, 1986 was also Tracey’s first day serving in the U.S. Army.
Tracey’s six years of service in the U.S. Army weren’t always easy. Over the years, she was stationed in different parts of the world. Tracey began her basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Bamberg, Germany was her first duty station. Upon re-enlisting, she joined the 25th Support and Transportation Battalion in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Some days were filled with loud noise as soldiers practiced their artillery skills. Drill sergeants were often the first person you would hear in the morning.
During her years of service, Tracey had primarily worked as a food service specialist. She served thousands of meals to captains, commanders and other soldiers. While serving in Hawaii, Tracey would frequent many of the award winning cuisine and restaurants strategizing different recipes. She spent years developing a portfolio with her recipes. Unfortunately, one day, her recipe portfolio was stolen. Tracey was looking forward to the day she had a place to call home.
A few years after she completed her service for the U.S. Army, she was in the process of moving with her husband from their basement apartment to their new townhouse. Tracey’s husband had started a new job. It would be a few weeks before he received his first paycheck. Tracey soon realized that she would not have enough money for the security deposit which was required for the townhouse. Tracey felt her grip become looser and looser on the townhouse she once so optimistically envisioned.
Tracey anxiously got on her computer and did a search which included the keywords “veterans and housing”. Illinois Joining Forces (“IJF”) appeared on her screen. She immediately contacted IJF, which ironically was also her birthday. A staff member at IJF quickly responded to her call. The next few days Tracey and IJF worked together feverishly exchanging information. In approximately two weeks, Tracey was ecstatic to hear that the Homes for Heroes Foundation, through IJF, provided the necessary funds to her new landlord. Tracey is grateful she had the necessary assistance to get her over this hump.
Tracey still resides in that same townhouse today. She is living her dream with a dessert business called “Tracey’s Smack Ya Momma Desserts!” and a catering business called “Blessed & Highly Flavored Catering”. She proudly shares her business on her Facebook page: Sweetznsavory Chef Tracey. Tracey’s goal is to expand her business to include event planning in which she would call “Virtuous Woman Events Planning, Party Planning and Catering”.
Tracey’s best seller is called “Tracey’s Reeses’s Peanut Butter Cup Caramel Chocolate Cake”. “It’s made with fresh peanut butter frosting”, adds Tracey. When asked, Tracey said she had a baker’s secret she would be willing to share. Very enthusiastically she would stroll down the baking aisle in the store gazing at the various items such as baking chips, candies, syrups, and baking mixes. From there she would brainstorm what delectable concoctions she could create. Tracey has training in the Culinary Arts but never received any formal training or instruction in the dessert business. This is a skill that was self-taught as a result of her hard work, ambition and curiosity.
IJF connects service members, veterans and their families with approximately 500 veteran serving organizations (VSO). In collaboration with these trusted and dedicated member organizations, veterans are provided with the respect and care they deserve in order to live productive lives. Family is included in this network because of the integral role they play in the life of the veteran.
Our veterans serve and protect us so we can go about our daily business safely. Unfortunately, when a veteran returns home, they are often presented with new challenges that effect everyday living. “The most common issues veterans face are employment and financial assistance”, said Ken Barber, Executive Director at IJF. As an entry point for these veterans, IJF offers assistance in the following areas; Behavioral Health, Financial Literacy, Benefits and Emergency Assistance, Housing and Homelessness, Education, Legal Support, Women Veterans, Employment & Job Training, Family, Children and Survivors and Faith-Based Organizations.
Tracey receiving the financial support she needed is one example of how an IJF network organization helped her. Others include, one veteran who received a pair of work boots he needed to start a new job. The emergency assistance fund provided a veteran with a train pass he needed for work. Transportation was also provided for a veteran so he can attend a medical appointment.
There is an estimated 700,000 veterans living in Illinois. Illinois ranks tenth in the nation for the largest veteran population. In Illinois, Chicago has the most veterans with Belleville following. IJF’s vision is to find these veterans, and work seamlessly with the other organizations to ensure veterans have the services they need regardless of where they live.
No matter what your situation, IJF has options within reach. If you wish to contact IJF by phone, please call 877-236-7702. During business hours, the call center is operated by veterans at the Chicago Lighthouse. As veterans, these employees understand how difficult it could be to ask for help. During non-business hours, a suicide prevention number is provided.
For those with access to a computer, please visit IllinoisJoiningForces.org or email at email@example.com. In addition, last Fall, IJF launched VetQnect, a mobile app for veterans and military service members in the state. IJF believes assisting veterans is a critical mission that cannot fail.
Tracey made 200 of her signature cupcakes for the various IJF organizations as a way of saying thank you. For Tracey that was probably easy. She already fed an army.
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In our “Hot Topics” series, we aim to amplify veteran and military stories and trends in the news, whether these be heavily covered national issues or local stories. From topics such as changes in the Navy rating system to the growing trend of veteran owned breweries, the goal of this series is to spark conversation and awareness of military and veteran issues today.
Veterans and art. Think these two words don’t have much in common? Think again. This post is the first of a series about contemporary art projects relating to veterans. Stay tuned for more!
The Veteran Vision Project
The Veteran Vision Project is a photo essay by photographer Devin Mitchell. The photographs feature service members looking in the mirror. Sounds simple, right? The catch is that one of the images of the service member depicts them in their uniform, while in the other they are in civilian attire. Whether through a sari or a football uniform, an easel or a skateboard, or a break dancing pose, the image of the service member in civilian clothing showcases their personality quirks and hobbies.
Mitchell told Mic that he hopes these photographs help people “come away with a better understanding” of those who fight in America’s wars, and draw attention to the fact that veterans are individuals with a wide variety of interests and personalities.
Check out the Veteran Vision Project website to see the photographs.