From the Homefront: A little help for the holiday season

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 15 years. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

Janet Cantrell and her husband, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, hosting junior enlisted Coast Guardsmen and their families at their quarters in Arlington on Dec. 12, 2014. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Kyle Niemi.

Janet Cantrell and her husband, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, hosting junior enlisted Coast Guardsmen and their families at their quarters in Arlington on Dec. 12, 2014. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Kyle Niemi.

As the holidays approach, we are all thinking about family, food, travel, gifts – all those extra expenses and pressures that rack up as part of our traditions. For some of us, it is all just too much.

Before that pressure gets too great, I wanted to show you lots of groups just waiting to help pick up the slack and get our Coast Guard families through the holidays. I know that from personal experience, I have not yet had a holiday season as a Coastie spouse in which I have not been inspired and awed by the support I have seen.

If you need help, there are so many looking forward to being the help you need. Seriously – looking forward to it. So please ask them. And if you are one of those enthusiastically wanting to help, I’ve got some great outlets for you.

At the unit level, families who would like some assistance can reach out to the chaplain through their unit, the chief’s mess, the ombudsman, and even the spouse’s club. There are Coast Guard specific groups that provide financial support all year around. And there are outside agencies that have special programs for this time of year.

I’m going to highlight a few options here, but we have a larger list in the resources section. (And if you see an agency you know provides great services during the holidays, give it a shout out in the comments section.)

I got some help on this column from three Coasties who make it their business to help: the ombudsmen at large. Fran DeNinno, whose husband is the commandant of the Coast Guard; Janet Cantrell, whose husband is the master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard; and Valerie Johnson, whose husband is the reserve force master chief for the Coast Guard, all suggested places to look for assistance. But what they want you to know first, is that they want you to be sure to get any help you need. Now, and throughout the year.

“The hardest part for many is asking for help and accepting it.  My husband and I are still learning how to ask for and accept help,” said DeNinno. “However, please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help, whether its financial or emotional help. You don’t have to go it alone.”

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Cantrell also underscored the need for us all to stick together and make sure we are taking care of each other.

“It’s extremely important for each of us to help one another, not just during the holidays, but throughout the year. We are all family – helping with support and most important to me, compassion,” she said.

And Johnson added, ”My advice to families in need of assistance is don’t suffer in silence. If you need help, don’t be afraid to reach out. It’s up to all of us to be aware, sensitive, and kind to those around us who may be struggling, especially during this holiday season.”

See what I mean? So much help is just waiting for you. You just have to do one thing: Ask.

So where to go? Let’s get started with the chaplains, who connect with families regularly, but who also can act as a liaison with other groups who are available to assist.

The holidays can spur introspection about our needs, and not just the financial ones, said Chaplain Steven Barstow, the deputy chaplain of the Coast Guard.

“During this time of year, many people will be holding out hope for better times: hoping that this year, things will be different; hoping that this year my family relations will improve; hoping that this year we will have enough funds to enjoy a nice gift giving season,” Barstow said.

Reaching out for help may be the best antidote to feeling hopeless in the face of a series of disappointments or frustrations.

“Resiliency helps us survive times of distress, and grow stronger for having made it through.  We need each other to strengthen our own resilience.  We need each other, to make it through,” Barstow said. “A reed, standing alone, will be battered down by the wind and rain.  When we stand alongside one another, we are stronger than we ever could be alone.”

The Command Religious Program is ready to assist and keep families strong, he said. The program is as varied as much as the chaplains that serve, but one thing remains constant – the fact that there is someone at every unit ready to help.

For example, at Coast Guard Headquarters, the chaplains work with the area spouses’ club to provide a “Santa’s Bag” of gifts for families in need. In some training commands, like Petaluma, Yorktown or Cape May, there are specific outreach programs for families through the chapels there. At the Coast Guard Academy, chaplains help match cadets with volunteer families in the community to provide a “Home for the Holidays” experience.

Coast Guard Ombudsman-at-Large Janet Cantrell serving servicemembers at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir on Nov. 11, 2014. Photo courtesy Janet Cantrell.

Coast Guard Ombudsman-at-Large Janet Cantrell serving servicemembers at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir on Nov. 11, 2014. Photo courtesy Janet Cantrell.

Most importantly, if feelings of hopelessness at the holiday season lead to thoughts of suicide or self-harm, service members and their families can call their chaplains for help, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. They can also reach out to CGSPRT (1-855-CGSUPRT), or to their friends and colleagues.

“It is important to consider the people surrounding us during this seasonal time of cheerfulness and joy, to slow down enough to notice those who are not ‘feeling the love’ and may need to talk to someone,” Barstow said. “Our chaplains play an integral role in suicide prevention across the Coast Guard, especially during the holiday season.”

In concert with the commands, the chaplains are waiting to be of assistance, no matter the need, said Barstow.

“Each service-member’s chain of command wants the best for their people, and are sincerely concerned for their people and their family’s well-being,” he said.

There are also outside agencies at the ready, not just at the holidays, but all year. One example is the USO. Its Holiday Care Packages program provides decorations, snacks, DVDs and games to those serving in remote areas of the world during the holidays.

“It is important to support our service members and military families all year long, but during the holiday season is when they may feel the least connected to their families, home and country,” said Susan Thomas, the vice president of Warrior and Family Programs at the USO.

The organization helps families connect through one of it’s most popular programs, Operation Phone Home, which gives phone and Wi-Fi access to service members, or the USO Transition 360 Alliance, which helps transitioning military families.

And if you want to lend your hand to USO, visit its website at Or you can buy a gift in the name of a loved one and help support service members and their families by visiting From November through the end of December, Johnson & Johnson will be matching any donation made through the USO Wishbook.

“The USO is how America says ‘thank you’ to our service members,” Thomas said. “Whether it’s making a donation or volunteering their time at a USO center there are lots of ways for Americans to get involved.”

The ombudsmen at large will also be spending some of their holidays with members of the Coast Guard and their families. DeNinno said she and her husband spent Thanksgiving overseas with families, one of the traditions she enjoys at this time of year.

“It is so important for each of us to reach out to other members of our Coast Guard family,” she said. “We are in this together, and we can help each other through the ups and downs of life.  Even if some of us don’t have the financial resources to help others, we have other gifts such as compassion, understanding, laughter, or maybe we can make a meal for someone or knit a scarf or offer to babysit so someone can go shopping.  We all have something to give.  Doesn’t if just feel good to see that smile on someone else’s face or that look of gratitude?  Even when you give anonymously, it’s a wonderful feeling.  It’s something that so many of our CG members & their families do throughout the year for others.  I am fortunate to be able to hear of so much goodness coming from so many areas of the Coast Guard.  I can’t say thank you enough.”

Coast Guard Ombudsman-at-Large Fran DeNinno serves a Thanksgiving meal for crews and families stationed at Patrol Forces Southwest Asia in Manama, Bahrain. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Coast Guard Ombudsman-at-Large Fran DeNinno serves a Thanksgiving meal for crews and families stationed at Patrol Forces Southwest Asia in Manama, Bahrain. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

And Cantrell said she will be sharing the holidays with families at the Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey.

“It’s extremely important to remember our Coast Guard members and families during the holiday season. Steve and I will be at TRACEN Cape May for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to support and extend our holiday wishes to our newest Coast Guard members – our Recruits – who are all so far away from their friends and family. Each year, the Jersey Cape Military Spouses’ Club prepares hundreds of stockings filled with personal hygiene items, uniform items, key chains, gift cards, and holiday cards from local children. These stockings are personally handed out to each recruit by spouses of this organization. I am privileged and honored to be able to take part in this wonderful tradition on Christmas Eve. Christmas morning, Steve and I will be enjoying breakfast with hundreds of young men and women who anxiously await their afternoon or evening with their Fireside Family, in which several local families adopt our recruits for the day so they may spend the holiday and enjoy dinner in a family atmosphere.”

It is all of this together – Coasties, formal agencies and outside agencies working together — that builds the best foundation for Coast Guard families at any time of the year, said Barstow.

“A strong support system is made up of family, friends, faith, personal resources, and external resources,” he said.

What would you add to our list of resources? Tell us in the comments section.


To reach your chaplain: First, try to go through the chain of command – there is a chaplain assigned to every unit. But if that doesn’t work, here are some other options. If the chaplain isn’t geographically located, you can reach them by phone. If the chaplain is close geographically, again, a quick phone call can get you an appointment to ask questions or reach out for help. The numbers for the chaplains should also be available on the websites for each unit.

To find your ombudsman: Go to the Ombudsman Registry, and scroll down to the bottom right of the page. There is a link there to contact your ombudsman. Click that, and a dialogue box will pop up allowing you to input your information to contact the ombudsman in your area. They often have two vital categories of information: they know what kind of assistance is available within your Coastie community, and they also know about great support systems within your civilian or geographical community.

Spouse’s clubs: So often, the chiefs and the chaplains reach out to the spouses’ clubs when families can sue some help. You can find spouse’s clubs in your area by checking out the registry at the National Council of Coast Guard Spouses Clubs.

Chief Petty Officers Association and the Coast Guard Enlisted Association: The CPOA branches have independent holiday programming, and you can contact them trhough chiefs at your unit. Or you can find them online.

Coast Guard Mutual Assistance: The CGMA provides financial assistance to the Coast Guard community through interest-free loans, grants and financial counseling. To get help through CGMA, just contact a local representative. Make sure to have two things ready: an application form and a budget form.

USO: The USO provides service members Holiday Care Packages and phone and Wi-Fi access through Operation Phone Home.

The Red Cross: The Holiday Mail for Heroes program is supported by specific chapters. Go online to see which locations are participating. Additionally, the Red Cross can provide emergency financial assistance for military families, not just at the holidays, but the whole year through.

Trees for Troops: This nonprofit provides free Christmas trees to military families of all branches. Last year, it donated 18,032 trees to 60 military installations.

Operation Homefront: This nonprofit provides assistance during financial challenges by assisting with food, travel, repairs and financial assistance.

Toys for Tots: This nonprofit both accepts donations for new toys and then distributes them to kids in need during the holidays. The website has links for those who want to help by donating, and it also gives directions on how to find your local chapter so that you can request a toy.

Veteran’s Service Organizations: The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars provides a variety of services for veterans and their families. Both websites include links for finding the VSO in your community to seek assistance.

Salvation Army: The familiar ringing of bells and red buckets are not the only way the Salvation observes the holiday season. It has a specific segment of its services set aside for veterans affairs.

Soldiers’ Angels: This nonprofit provides assistance to military families, active duty members and veterans throughout the year.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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