INVERNESS, Fla. – When Barbara Mills, a sales associate with RE/MAX Realty One in Inverness, got a call that a young solider returning from active duty discovered his wife left him to raise four children under the age of 11 on his own, she jumped into action.
“I put out an email to my list of friends asking for help. He needed a job, the kids needed clothing and he needed a place to stay as he was at his parent’s house,” says the founder of Operation Welcome Home, a nonprofit that honors soldiers as they return from Iraq or Afghanistan. “It was amazing what the community did. They didn’t donate one doll; they donated 20 dolls,” she laughs.
Now, the solider is working at a power plant and the children are thriving. In fact, as we did this interview, Olive Garden gave the soldier a pass that gives him and his family six weeks of free dinners. “He was so thankful,” she says.
It’s all in a day’s work for Mills. A military mother herself, she has raised more than $200,000 over the years for Operation Welcome Home to hold welcome-home parties for nearly 500 veterans and National Guardsmen, and provide baskets of gift cards for food, gas and shopping. When she identifies a need, she often provides additional services. For example, she recently helped rehab a home for a veteran who was living in an unfinished structure. She also organizes trips for Honor Flight so that area World War II veterans can visit the different veterans and war memorials in Washington, D.C.
“I do anything that needs to be done,” Mills says. She knows what these young soldiers are going through first hand. Her son Kevin was in the Navy and deployed to Iraq. After nine torturous months of worry, Mills finally got some relief in the summer of 2008, when she learned Kevin was coming home – at least for a while. But that reprieve was bittersweet.
“He’s going to come home and no one will know what he’s done,” she remembers thinking to herself. “My son deserves some recognition.”
Mills, the matriarch of a military family – her husband is an Army vet, son Ryan spent six years in the Navy, and daughter Samantha spent four years in ROTC – learned that Kevin was one of seven soldiers from Citrus County, Fla., returning around the same time after serving in Iraq.
Over a six-month period, she contacted the soldiers’ families and friends, and organized small parties at local restaurants or outdoors. Each returning warrior received formal thank-you notes and a red-ribbon decorated wicker laundry basket featuring gift cards donated by local retailers.
After those seven homecomings, Mills thought she was done. Then she got a call from a mother saying her son was coming home next week and could Mills set up the same welcome for him. “I had no money left,” Mills recalls, and then she wondered what was she supposed to do now? Undaunted, she reached out to the vast veteran community in Citrus County and before she knew it, Mills was receiving “$500 checks at a pop.”
A Charity Is Born
To qualify for Operation Welcome Home, a soldier must have served in the global war on terror, have received the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and have been living in Citrus County at the time of deployment. To find out about troop arrivals – not an easy task – Mills keeps her ear to the ground. She gets her info from Facebook or the old-fashioned way – at the hairdresser. She also sets up a table at community events, like the 4th of July fest and farmers markets.
“In Citrus County, there’s always some festival. I’ll have a booth and people will give me names of people I should recognize,” she says. “I’ll sit out there in 90-degree weather and in thunderstorms,” she says proudly.
To date, she’s notched 365 total welcomes, not including the time she feted 140 members of a National Guard troop who arrived home all at once. All told, she’s raised about $207,000.
In addition, she works with Honor Flight out of Clearwater. “I am guardian coordinator,” Mills explains. “I assign a guardian to any WWII vet going on the flight.”
The nonprofit program flies vets to Washington, D.C., to visit the war memorials and to honor their service. Mills goes on one or two trips a year, escorting Citrus County vets – typically WWII veterans in their late 80s or 90s. She honors this additional commitment to the vets despite a daunting obstacle of her own: her fear of flying. Mills drives 13 hours each way, and she’s been on 20 Honor Flight trips since 2012.
Honestly, she says, “I am a simple person and lead a very simple life, but I feel compelled to tell the story of what these brave soldiers have done. People who don’t have a family member in the armed services just don’t quite get what these vets have done for us. They work in horrible conditions, for 12 to 15 hours a day, don’t get to celebrate holidays with their families and they do it to protect us. People just don’t realize the sacrifices they make. They must be recognized when they come back.”
That’s Barbara Mills’ mission and the impetus behind Operation Welcome Home.
Go to Operation Welcome Home for more information. With permission, this article was adapted from a story that previously appeared in the National Association of Realtors®’ (NAR) Realtor magazine.
A member of the Citrus County Association of Realtors®, Mills is dedicated to her profession and to her community. In recognition of her volunteer efforts and her commitment to honoring U.S. veterans, the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) named Mills as a Good Neighbor Award winner for 2015.