RCI Honors Caregivers at 2015 Annual Summit

RCI Honors Resilient Military Caregivers

Institute Provides Financial Scholarships to Five Caregivers

Thursday, November 5th, 2015 — AMERICUS, GEORGIA — At its 28th Annual National Summit Oct. 23, the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI) presented five Mattie J.T. Stepanek Caregiving Scholarships to deserving caregivers supporting their loved ones, who were injured as a result of their military service.

This year, the $2,000 scholarships were awarded to military caregivers who are active or past participants in RCI’s signature military caregiver program, Operation Family Caregiver (OFC). OFC is a proven, evidence-based program that provides support to the families of newly returning service members and veterans. Since its launch in 2012, the program has helped more than 160 caregivers from across the country, all of whom were eligible for the scholarship.

The scholarship awardees include mothers and wives of servicemen who made significant sacrifices on behalf of their country. But their caregivers are making sacrifices as well, and this scholarship honors that sacrifice. Mary Booth, based in St. Louis, Mo., did not consider herself a caregiver until she called the VA Caregiver Crisis line when her son, a disabled veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was admitted to the hospital with suicidal and homicidal ideations. Ashley Jackson lives in Johnstown, Penn., with two daughters and her husband, who returned from his deployment “a totally different” man riddled with anger issues. Breanna Perez lives in Oceanside, Calif., taking care of her husband who was wounded during his fifth deployment and then deployed once more before coming home with numerous physical injuries and post-traumatic stress. Nikki Stephens, who lives in Murietta, Calif., cares for her husband, a former Marine who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, neurological visual impairment, fibromyalgia and epilepsy. Jamie Winkler serves as a caregiver in Seattle, Wash., to her husband who has post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain and long-term sleep issues.

All of these women point to their involvement with OFC as a turning point in helping them find a way to face and surmount these challenges. Their stories are unique but typical of the experience had by many spouses, siblings and parents who find themselves in the unexpected role of caregiver when their loved one comes home. Each of these awardees has developed the strength and resilience needed to care for her loved one but also to take care of herself. This is the OFC model.

OFC provides caregiver “coaches” who teach military families the skills they need to overcome unforeseen challenges and cope more effectively with problems they never imagined. Caregivers who have completed OFC report being less depressed and more satisfied with their lives, have fewer health complaints and are generally more prepared to take care of their families.

“The best thing I learned from Operation Family Caregiver was that I had to care for myself before I could care for anyone else,” Perez wrote in her scholarship application. “It truly helped me be a better caregiver because I was falling apart and I didn’t even know it.”

The scholarship is named for Mattie J.T. Stepanek, who died on June 22, 2004, just a month before his fourteenth birthday, due to complications of dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, a rare and fatal neuromuscular disease. Mattie was a friend to both President Carter and Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. He believed that although we all have life storms, there is a champion within each of us, waiting to emerge and pull us through. During his brief life, Mattie became a poet and peace activist, championing the idea that “Hope is real, peace is possible, and life is worthy!” This caregiving scholarship honors his memory and his optimism.