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Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar: "Military spouses are the backbone of the military."

Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar Verenice Castillo, Founder and CEO of the Military Spouse Advocacy Network, gives an update on her work supporting the military spouse community. She also shares what drives her to do this work and how the Veteran Leadership Program has contributed to the success of her organization.

May 5, 2022 //   10 minute read

Full transcript below. 

Can you tell us about the Military Spouse Advocacy Network (MSAN) and its mission?

The Military Spouse Advocacy Network - I'll be calling it MSAN - is a nonprofit organization that is focused on providing education, empowerment, and support to all military spouses from all branches. And the main focus in how we do that is with three different platforms, three different programs that we have, they all connect with each other. So to give you a better picture, we have what we call a mentorship hub. We are primarily focused on providing peer to peer mentorship to all military spouses. So we have a military spouse that comes to us, joins a mentorship hub, and request support. We assign them to peer, which is a mentor. And this mentor is going to provide guidance and support to the military spouse, such as linking them to resources, and providing the 24/7 assistance. It is something amazing that we have within MSAN as we provide peer to peer mentorship 24/7. As part of the mentorship hub, spouses also have the option to have access to all the resources, educational tools, guides, you name it.

We have some official collaborations and partnership with other nonprofits that we utilize as resources inside the hub. This military spouses also have the opportunity to apply for the MSAN Military Spouse Leadership Development Program. This is a form training that I'll get to share more about in a little bit, but this is a training where we are providing an opportunity for military spouses to receive the leadership support and skills that they need in order to become leaders in their community. So it is a full circle of support having a spouse that is a little lost and not finding a community and not knowing what to do. They come to MSAN, and we get them from mentorship to education. And at the end, we are developing leaders in our own communities.

Talk a little bit about recent updates at MSAN and the 2021 Impact Report.

We released a 2021 Impact Report, some amazing numbers. And I can give you a couple of numbers, but that report is on our website. We are so proud that in 2021, we had an average of 417,000 military spouses that received mentorship and support from MSAN from a mentorship hub, through leadership, through resources, you name it. We are an organization of 150 plus volunteers. Volunteers donated more than 22,000 volunteer hours, which is a value of more than $600,000 a year. So we are very committed and proud that this report is showing the impact that we have in our community, within our volunteers and the military spouses that we are supporting.

Do you have any big milestones or initiatives coming up this year?

So some amazing things are coming for MSAN. One of them is this Friday, we are going to launch our second annual Military Spouse Leadership Development Program. Applications will open May 6 on Military Spouse Appreciation Day through June 10. And we're excited because this leadership development program is a four-month training program where military spouses, 50 military spouses are selected to be part of this training. They receive training and support and education from Harvard University. We also partner with the MACRISA group and SAICA. Military spouses are earning micro certifications on mental health. And this is just to prepare them to be amazing leaders in their communities. Something that I talk about all the time, military spouses, we are the backbone of the military, and that is true.

But that also comes with this heavy weight, that we are expected to do things for our community. We are expected to make things happen, and we are all capable of it, but sometimes we don't have the training or the skills that we need in order to do that. And this is why MSAN has provided this four-month training where spouses are earning a certificate from Harvard University at the end of those four months. 

What is the inspiration and influence behind this work?

I am an immigrant. I came to the United States when I was 16 years old. And my father told me that he wanted me to have a better opportunity in the United States. And I always said that I wanted to pay it forward. I never thought that it would be in this way by not just serving my community, but supporting my husband while he was serving the country. When I came to the United States, I left my family behind. I came to a place where I didn't know the language, I felt out of place; I didn't feel like this was my community. A few years later, I married an active duty member. And once again, I had to leave my family behind. I felt like I was out of place. I couldn't find my sense of community, and I didn't know the language. So I felt that I was going through that multiple times. And every single time that you move from one place to another place, you have to leave everything behind and start all over again. So I always wanted to mentor brand-new military spouses because I was a brand-new military spouse. I had no one to guide me, no one to help me. And I was isolated. I was resentful.

I didn't like this lifestyle. And I was missing out on so many things. So I wanted to become that mentor that I didn't have. So that's how I started my volunteering time many years ago with bringing in brand-new spouses, a future generation of our military. And in future leaders that I said, you know what? I'm going to give what I can, I'm going to guide you. I'm going to support you. I'm here for you. And that was the vision behind MSAN. Like I said earlier, from bringing mentorship and providing a sense of community to a brand new or seasoned spouse to come to our mentorship hub, receive the education, the support, and the empowerment to now become leaders in their community and pay it forward. And we are not just hoping that they do it. We're actually giving them the education and the tools that they need to make it happen.

How has the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program contributed to your personal growth and the growth of MSAN?

When I was selected to be part of last year's VLP cohort, it was one of those moments when I went back to that young 16-year-old that was told you're going to the United States to have a better life. When I went through VLP, it reminded me of how lucky I was to live in this country and have the opportunities that I had, but also to experience something like VLP, the things that I got to learn, the connections, the friendships, the family that I found, VLP is my second family. You go to them where you build those relationships, you support each other. And there's something there that not many are aware of. Not only you're learning and supporting each other, but you are becoming each other's support.

I also talk about mentorship because we all need someone in our lives, someone that you can go to and ask questions and ask for supporting guidance. And this is exactly what I found during and after VLP. So in this experience, I've grown as a leader, I've grown as a person, I've grown as everything that I've done for my community. VLP is now one of the biggest parts of me that I'm able to share with others. So it is one of those things that I'm so thankful and that I'm always sharing with everybody, because it's not just about learning the skills. It's about applying. It's about that connection, that sense of community. Once again, when I got to VLP, I was thinking, "my goodness, what am I doing here?" But I found my community. And at the end, you don't want to leave because that's your family, that's your community, and that's exactly what I got from VLP, and I continue to have that, which is amazing.

Learn more about the Military Spouse Advocacy Network here.