BIWABIK — U.S. Army veteran Jamie Brown understood, first-hand, how important her volunteer service was on Saturday as she and a group of fellow female vets painted the siding of a Habitat for Humanity house in Biwabik.
The labor — so full of love — would mean Kristine Edstrom and her two young sons, DaJaun, 10, and Damari, 2, would soon have a safe and affordable place to live.
“I know how difficult situations can be for some of these families,” Brown said after the build day. “I actually had similar circumstances when I was their age. Everyone deserves to have a home, and Habitat for Humanity has made it a bit easier for some folks to accomplish this.”
The group of 10 local female veterans spent the day applying two coats of paint on the outside of the 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom house located near the entry of Biwabik. They even painted some of the siding yet waiting to be installed.
Many of the volunteers showed up wearing their “Northeast Minnesota Women Veterans” T-shirts, depicting a pair of dog tags on the front containing the words “Woman” and “Veteran.”
“One of the things veterans transitioning out of the military often have a difficult time with is finding a meaningful purpose in what they do after serving in the military,” said U.S. Marine veteran and group leader Chris Magnusson.
“That’s why we do as many volunteer projects as we do — continuing to serve our country through helping our local communities.”
The group of women first came together in May 2018 for the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota’s inaugural “Women Veterans Unite!” retreat at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.
That initial group of female veterans from across the Iron Range bonded effortlessly. More women have since joined the group, sharing in the understanding of what it means to be a woman veteran.
The women of many generations and branches of service have formed what they’ve dubbed their very own “tribe,” Magnusson said. They now meet monthly, rotating between the Virginia area and Hibbing, for social gatherings and to plan service projects.
“We have helped at the Veterans Community Thrift Store in Hibbing, the United Way’s Funspiel, and a small group of women will be working at a concession stand at the Duluth Airshow in July,” Magnusson said. Some of the women will also march in upcoming parades in Virginia, Gilbert, Hibbing, and Chisholm, and a family picnic is planned in August at Veterans on the Lake Resort in Ely.
The veterans shared — as always — in camaraderie as they worked on the North St. Louis Habitat for Humanity house.
“I enjoyed helping out with the Habitat house as a way of paying back for the help we received in Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed our home,” said Brenda Melgeorge, a local U.S. Army veteran whose late husband served with the U.S. Marines.
“People from the Range sent food, supplies and volunteers to help us get back on our feet,” following the devastating hurricane in 2005.
“If you’ve never been homeless nor lost all of your belongings, you can’t appreciate how much it means to have others come and give you a hand,” Melgeorge said.
Magnusson said the veterans are planning a Habitat build day in October on homes in Eveleth “with male veterans working on one house and the women veterans next door at the other Habitat house.”
She added, “not that we are competitive.”
But the friendly competition would be a win-win. “We are determined to do a good job and provide opportunities for all veterans to be active in our communities,” Magnusson noted.
The 2nd annual female veterans retreat held last month brought together 49 women at Giants Ridge.
“About half of them had attended the first retreat, but everyone just clicked and the friendships instantly formed,” Magnusson said. During the gathering, Magnusson read a poem about a “tribe” — “and all through the weekend and in our feedback surveys we heard how happy people were to have found this ‘tribe.’”
A presentation, based on a Marine Corps birthday ball tradition, took place at the retreat.
“We presented a cupcake, representing the cake we would have at the birthday celebration, to the oldest veteran, age 79, and she in turn passed it to the youngest veteran, 34, representing the passing on of knowledge, experience and tradition to the next generation,” Magnusson said.
“We really can’t have the same connection with civilian woman as we can have with other woman veterans,” explained Melgeorge, who also attended the retreat. “So many of us, like me, feel isolated due to widowhood, infirmity or even strange work hours.”
The Northeast Minnesota Women Veterans group “continues to grow from the bonds that are built during the retreat,” Magnusson said.
“In fact, at our May monthly ‘coffee talk’ get-together, there were 24 women at the Sawmill in Virginia, and we had been averaging about a dozen before the retreat.”
The women often comment, Magnusson said, about how the retreats provide “growth” and “healing” — “not feeling alone anymore.”
And the veterans often talk about how “they are now doing things to give back to our tribe and our community, finding that purpose or mission.”
Edstrom, who assisted the women painting her family’s future home on Saturday, said they were all “great and hard-working.”
“Being the sister of a Marine, having the women veterans group help on my house meant more than words can explain,” she said. “At lunch they answered my questions and told stories that I wished we had more time to discuss. … Such an inspirational and uplifting group of women.”
“Watch for us marching in upcoming parades,” Magnusson added. “We want to be seen and reach other women veterans and invite them to join us.”
“Words of thanks are nice,” Melgeorge said. “But the feeling you get when you help someone else is uplifting.”