Five years after moving from her native Colombia to the United States, military spouse Kimberly Donate finally found a community where she felt she belonged.
That community is the Spanish-language nonprofit Esposas Militares Hispanas USA, which offers a variety of free services to Hispanic military spouses.
“Without the organization, I would be lost,” said Donate, who lives in Tennessee with her children and husband, who serves in the Army.
“It’s the best thing I could have found because I am alone in this country. I came with my two kids, and my only family is my spouse,” she said. “Military life is not simple. For me, this group is my family.”
The nonprofit is run by about 15 volunteers, also military spouses. They answer questions via email and social media about all things military — deployment, change of post, housing, school enrollment and more — and help members connect with local resources. They offer translation services; English and citizenship classes; and scholarships for military children and spouses. They help members deal with employment and tax issues, and run occasional in-person gatherings, which are starting again after a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps most importantly, volunteers provide emotional support to spouses who deal with the difficulties of getting used to military life while negotiating language barriers, founder Janet Sanchez said. The overall goal is to help members feel empowered and find their productive places within their communities, Sanchez said.
“We are constantly counseling and helping different people with different issues,” Sanchez said.
“People say, ‘Janet you’re making their life easier,” she added. “No. We are educating them in their own language, so they can go back and serve their communities.”
The nonprofit has a public Facebook group with more than 16,000 members, and a private Facebook group with about 8,000 members who are vetted, to try to ensure no “outsiders” get in. It has several Facebook subgroups, such as for specific military bases.
The military spouses typically are married to U.S. citizens, and some are married to permanent residents. Some still live in their countries of origin, waiting to immigrate to the United States, Sanchez said.
Altogether, the nonprofit has a network of about 50,000 people worldwide, including current and former military spouses, military survivors and military parents, she said.
The nonprofit will celebrate its 15th year in December. Sanchez started the group’s Facebook page in 2007, initially just for herself and four Spanish-speaking friends, so they could stay in contact while moving around the country. The page grew by word-of-mouth and blew up about a year later, she said.
A major turning point was 2016, when the organization obtained federal 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to expand its services.
“After 2007, this has been my full-time job. I spend many, many hours a day, just to give back to the community,” Sanchez said. “It’s my baby.”
Volunteer Jacelis Seda is the nonprofit’s program director for Army-related issues. She is a native of Puerto Rico and lives in El Paso, Texas, with her husband, who retired from the Army.
The volunteers have jobs and families, but are committed to the cause, said Seda, who works as a teacher.
“We try to take a little time every day to help (members), so they don’t go (through) what we went through,” she said.
Seda was among the original group members and became a volunteer around 2012. The group helped her immensely, particularly when dealing with the uncertainty of moving, with school-aged children, to different posts, she said.
“Janet created this and she has done an incredible job,” Seda said. “I’m grateful for her.”
Sanchez said it’s all about trying to help others overcome the hurdles she faced herself. She is a native of Puerto Rico, and lives near San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, who retired from the Army. Sanchez said she labored to perfect her English, but that can be difficult to do alone for people who didn’t grow up with the language.
“I know how you feel when you’re isolated — because you’re Hispanic, because you’re a minority, because you don’t know the language,” Sanchez said. “If you feel isolated in the military community, with so many traditions and so many rules that you don’t understand … just picture that if you don’t know the language.”
Esposas Militares Hispanas USA runs on a budget of less than $50,000 from grants, sponsorships and donations, Sanchez said. It offers emergency financial assistance to military spouses who are facing natural disasters — like when Hurricane Ian devastated parts of Florida in September — or unexpected medical bills, or need to stay in a hotel when fleeing domestic violence. A fundamental tenet is ensuring confidentiality, Sanchez said.
Domestic violence in the U.S. increased by 8.1% after pandemic-related lockdowns were ordered, according to the Council on Criminal Justice’s National Commission on COVID-19. Spanish-speaking victims are especially vulnerable, Sanchez said, because their abusers can further manipulate them and even threaten their immigration status. Also, it’s not always easy to get help from the military, she said.
The nonprofit can help guide members them through the process of leaving their abusers, and dealing with military and civilian proceedings. Most importantly, it’s about listening and supporting without judgment, she said.
Donate, who joined the nonprofit’s Facebook group in 2020, said she especially benefited from its citizenship classes, which she took for about three months before becoming a U.S. citizen in September.
She has found emotional comfort from volunteers and fellow members, and has obtained lots of practical information, such as how to resolve an employment contract issue, she said.
“Any questions I have, they have the answers,” she said.
At its core, Esposas Militares Hispanas USA is all about community — and paying it forward, Sanchez said.
“I was taught when I was child by my grandparents, that when you have time and you can give back, you should do it,” she said. “And I think that’s what I am doing.”