People often ask us about the “origin story” of ICFF, and want to know what led to the kind of inclusive and emotionally uplifting events that we are known for.
It grew out of the pain and loss that people were feeling as military casualties hit home. At the time, the war in Iraq was still going on. We were concerned about what local resource and services were being provided to the families who were losing loved ones in the war. There were support resources being offered by the Department of Defense on a national level, but very little happening at the state or local level.
HDA was working with the National Guard on other initiatives when I was introduced to someone who had just been hired for a new program. The Army had just begun “Survivor Outreach Services” to provide ongoing services to families. The program was very new, and we all agreed that in order for them to earn the trust of the families they would need to meet them in person.
At HDA, we wanted to learn more about their unmet needs and how we could help. So we started the Illinois Families of the Fallen Task Force and invited community partners to join us in creating the first event for families of the fallen. The Michael Reese Health Trust agreed to give us funding for the first event, and we recruited friends and volunteers from HDA, the Institute for Therapy through the Arts, the Barr Harris Children’s Grief Center, the Chicago School of Psychology, and the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies to help organize and staff the event.
We created an event with sessions for children as well as adults, and we allowed the families to choose what interested them the most. We decided from the beginning that we wanted to help all families who believed that their loved one’s death was military connected – not just focus on one branch of service or a particular armed conflict, or on those who died while on active duty. We also decided to define “family” broadly so that any loved one who was grieving the loss would be welcome.
That first event was held at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Illinois, on September 25, 2010. We called it “Connections at Cantigny.” (The 500-acre public park was named by its former owner, Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick, in honor of a World War I battle in which it saw action. Now a public park, it houses the U.S. Army’s First Division Museum.)
The response to the first event was overwhelming. Those of us who were there to help were moved and humbled by the reality of what these families had lost and how isolated they all seemed to feel. The families were so grateful for the event, and they kept asking with the next event would be.
We realized that we had found a way to meet one of the main needs of these grieving families – to help them feel less alone. The opportunity to connect them to other families who had endured the same type of loss and understood what they were going through. Many expressed that they were only around other families of the fallen on memorial days, which were events that were emotionally draining for them. But our event, they felt, was uplifting and focused on helping them create their new normal. We observed families connecting with each other and sharing contact information. We saw, watching and interacting with them, that was what we could do – connect the families to each other and to resources that could help them.
Illinois Connections for Families of the Fallen came out of that. Now, after running the program for over six years, our original funder still funds the program today, and many of the original partners still participate.
Laura Gallagher Watkin
Director of Veterans Programs
Health & Disability Advocates