HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Hattiesburg is one of the first cities in the country to pledge support to military veteran caregivers and sign on as a Hidden Heroes City.
Hidden Heroes is a new, national campaign created by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to "call vital attention to America's 5.5. million military and veteran caregivers," according to the foundation, and is being lead by campaign chair Tom Hanks and Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
"The main thing we want is for people to raise their hands and say, 'Here I am. Oh and guess what? I'm in a geographic area in which there is 40 or 50 others just like us,'" Hanks said. "So that there's great strength in numbers. So they can begin to pool all of their resources themselves - what they can and cannot do - and also put forward then the call to the other things that they need."
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation said each Hidden Heroes City pledges to "help identify local military caregivers and organize community resources to offer them vital support."
Staff Sgt. Marjory Harris, a 2016 Dole Caregiver Fellow, lives in the Hattiesburg area and met her husband while they were both at Camp Shelby. Now a caregiver for her husband, she said she knows firsthand how important it is to support others like her.
"It runs the gamut from just trying to figure out what companies are veteran and caregiver friendly to good places that our veterans can get together because some of our caregivers literally can't go grocery shopping because they have no one to help them with their veteran," Harris said. "I honestly think this might be what our communities have been lacking lately, which is helping your neighbor out. I think that we have so many good people in our state. They just don't know where to start helping. So I think that this initiative will bring together people and companies that want to help with caregivers and veterans that need the help, but we're just so tired of trying to find it. It's going to be a ready resource that we know where to go to, and it hopefully will spread like wildfire. I think it's going to be exceptionally beneficial. Throughout the state, we do have a very good, well tied in, local caregiver population, but there are still so many gaps."
Harris said a major issue for caregivers is often not knowing where to go for specific information.
"The reason we feel so isolated - the caregiver community feels isolated, people as caregivers and veterans for that matter feel so isolated- is there really is a lack of information out there," she said. "There's not a lack of wanting knowledge. I know hundreds of caregivers that continuously scour for some piece of knowledge, and they try to share it with each other, but to be able to do it on a city-wide scale or a county-wide scale is going to be huge impact. It just is. There's no way around it. If I as a caregiver knew that there was a council, for example, that was responsible for saying 'this is what our city or county (is) going to do for caregivers,' at least I know someone to go to that is supposed to be a subject matter expert, and if that person doesn't know, they probably know someone else on a panel that does know. It's a good source to start looking the resources we need."
She said she does not think cities, companies or services are intentionally ignoring caregivers, they just are not aware caregivers should be actively considered.
"They just need the switch turned on, just like veterans did," Harris said. "Whether it's school or employment or transportation, any little thing that you can do, and I think Hattiesburg has the resources to do that and do it well."
Hattiesburg is one of just 54 cities pledging support, and is included on the list with much larger cities, like New York City, San Francisco and Chicago. Harris said Hattiesburg's commitment is personally touching and shows the program can be implemented everywhere.
"When you have Hattiesburg sign on and they start to do little things that can really make a big impact on caregivers' lives, other cities in Mississippi, or counties for that matter, understand 'this is something really small that we can do,' it starts to spread," Harris said. "Since (Mississippi) we're rural, it doesn't necessarily matter about the size of the city. It matters that people are doing. So for it to be in Hattiesburg, which Hattiesburg is already a very veteran-centric city- the fact that we have a lot of resources right there, they just need to be brought together- is a huge windfall. It's a huge point of pride for me."
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated there are more than 220,000 veterans in Mississippi, with anywhere from 54,206 to 69,379 living from the Pine Belt to the Gulf Coast. Because Hattiesburg is a hub for several counties across the Pine Belt, Harris said its pledge is particularly important.
"A lot of times people look at Hattiesburg as having resources that their own city doesn't. If Hattiesburg wouldn't have signed on to this, then what would make other cities or counties think that they could? So being one of the frontrunners in the state is absolutely critical, I think, for Hattiesburg," Harris said. "Hattiesburg is willing to make itself accountable for the caregivers in its city. I think that there is a good feeling that there are a lot of good intentions, but if you don't have someone to hold accountable or someone for me to call and say 'why isn't this happening' then it's really just an idea. Hattiesburg being willing to hold itself accountable and to say this is where you go if you have a question about this, that really says a lot. I think it says a lot about their personal responsibility."
The Hidden Heroes campaign officially launched on Tuesday at an event at the U.S. Capitol with Dole, Hanks, Ambassador Tom Brokaw, U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, National Coalition Partners and more than 50 military caregivers. Harris was in D.C. Wednesday with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.