During Ian Cairns’ first deployment to Afghanistan, he was moved by the poverty he saw there and conveyed those feelings to his wife.
“My husband would tell me about children walking around barefoot, and about families who couldn’t feed their children,” said Randi Cairns.
Randi had decades of professional experience with nonprofit organizations, so hearing about needs and meeting them was a natural progression for her. She organized and shipped donations for the Afghan communities where her husband served.
When that deployment ended, Randi’s focus shifted. She had begun to realize the needs present within the military community and was looking for avenues to meet them. In 2007, she founded Home Front Hearts. The 501(c) organization serves New Jersey military families from all wars and all service branches with all kinds of needs.
Randi said the needs vary from support for wounded warriors and their caregivers, to financial needs and casework assistance.
Randi and her small volunteer staff might help one veteran’s family to pay utility bills and another to find counseling or educational services. She said they meet these needs by reaching out to community organizations and businesses with the needed resources.
Home Front Hearts worked with the Home Depot Foundation, for example, which provided a grant to renovate a wounded warrior’s home. Southwest Airlines awarded 40 round-trip tickets to Home Front Hearts for military families needing travel for medical care or for emergency situations.
“We bridge folks who are able to give with the folks who have the needs,” Randi said.
She said they also build bridges with other government agencies and nonprofits, creating a network of support, an essential task when so many disconnected groups are serving military families.
“If there are existing resources, then we don’t reinvent the wheel,” Randi said. “If there are folks that I know of who can help a servicemember, we match things to make that happen.”
Unemployment of returning veterans is a recurring issue, particularly for the guard and reserves, Randi said.
“We serve a lot of the folks on the guard side of the house,” she said. “There are laws that protect their jobs, but those laws don’t protect you if the company folds during an economic crash while you’re deployed.”
Randi said she anticipates the needs will increase as troops return from deployment and force sizes are reduced.
“I would love to be put out of business,” she said, “but I don’t see that coming. I feel we very strongly will see a system that is totally unprepared and incapable of handling the needs that arise.”
“We still see Vietnam veterans, which speaks to the need for long-term support,” she said.
Ian Cairns is now on his third long deployment, serving in the Active Guard and Reserve as a full-time soldier, while his family maintains a civilian life in New Jersey.
To get the word out and find resources, Randi, Ian and their four children speak to community groups, local students, churches and businesses.
“We tell compelling stories to educate communities who maybe don’t understand or don’t know,” Randi said.
She would like to serve more than her own state, but with limited resources she’s learned her efforts have more impact close to home.
“We needed to be geographically focused,” she said. “We still rely on corporations and community groups for pretty much everything we do. We’ve found it’s easier to do that when we’re appealing to groups about their neighbors.”
Randi said she realizes official agencies can’t be expected to meet every need in the lives of military members and families.
“The military and our government have to rely on our communities and nonprofits to do this work,” she said. “If we don’t do it, who does it?”
For more information, see homefronthearts.org