ORANGE/EAST ORANGE, NJ - Writing is something I have always enjoyed doing. It is now an honor to write for our community, highlighting the heroes who walk beside us by shining light and bringing awareness to what they do to better our communities every day. First up, in honor of Veteran's Day, is Retired Master Sergeant E-7 Air Force Veteran Cheryl "Kit" Turner.
She is small in stature and big in heart. If you have ever met her, then you would agree; Kit has a warm smile that enters the room first. Her smile is followed by confidence and determination to make the lives of people better.
I have had the privilege to know Kit for about ten years. We first met serving the community. I was fighting for affordable, diverse housing in Montclair, and Kit was providing direct relief and services to veterans with the dream to build safe, sustainable, affordable housing for any veterans and their families in need. Today, we are still doing these things, although in slightly different capacities.
My soul smiled when I met Kit. I grew up on military bases worldwide as my father is a retired Army Sergeant 1st Class who served in the elite “All American” 82nd Airborne. Growing up in an Army family and meeting folks from all walks of life, Kit's dedication to service to people rang true to me. I could tell she was the real deal. Genuine. An instant connection.
Flash forward, years later, Kit is still practicing what she preaches and working hard and effectively to serve our veterans. Together, we collaborate in the Oranges, Montclair, and Clifton to donate food to the community as a whole, and to host veteran benefit seminars. But Kit's service to the community is so much broader than our alliance, and her partnership with numerous entities:
Kit spearheads veterans' assistance in all their needs from housing, clothing, medical care, VA clinics, food, and employment. She is the founder of New Hope Village for Veterans, Inc. You can find her packaging goodie bags for soldiers overseas, leading coat and toy drives for the community, and providing direct assistance to the homeless. Perhaps Kit is most well-known for finding safe and secure housing for veterans, and even welcoming them into her home until they get on their feet again.
Kit's vision for her organization is greater than what she currently provides. She is equipped with architectural renderings, budgets, and plans to create transitional housing for Essex County veterans. She is already in the process of developing 11 units in Buffalo, New York.
In an exclusive interview for TAPinto East Orange/Orange, I was privileged to take a deep dive into the story of Cheryl "Kit" Turner that I am sure the readers will enjoy:
Timberlake: Kit, how long did you serve in the military, and why did you join?
Kit: I served in the military for 23 years as a member of the Air Force. I was finishing up my senior year of college and wanted a change. Although I was an athlete, playing basketball, track, and soccer, I was always unique. I left college in the first semester of my senior year because I desired more. I wanted to see the world. So I went to the recruiting station, took the test, and said sign me up. I waited for two days before I told any of my family. I did this because my Mom wanted to join the Navy but was talked out of it.
Timberlake: What was appealing about the Air Force?
Kit: Going to see what the world had to offer. There had to be a better place or more to what I was seeing.
Timberlake: What places did you get to travel to through the Air Force?
Kit: Japan for eighteen years, Philippines eighteen for months, Mainland Japan for three years, where I gave birth to my two sons. I have been to Iceland, Greenland, Azores, Bermuda, Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Neverlands, Brussels, Switzerland, Amsterdam, France.
Timberlake: Speaking of children and birth. How was it as a woman in the male saturated military? You were a mother and traveling with the children in the service. Very inspiring stuff.
Kit: It was fun and chaotic. Beautiful and sad at times. When I went to Desert Storm, it was heartbreaking. I left for six months, and when I got back, my 2-year-old son did not recognize me. He would not even speak to me. To make matters worse, I was only home for three days before I got called back to active duty with a new North Dakota mission. The gentleman on the phone who gave me these orders said he would call me back in four hours to provide me with time to get my affairs in order. After I hung up the phone, I cried, thinking of my children. The first person I called was my mother and asked her to put me on her prayer list. By the time the man called me back, they had switched my orders, and I was able to stay home at my current base without me saying a word. See, God works!
[Operation Desert Storm occurred in the early '90s. It was the first major foreign war after the end of the Cold War. It was a war against Saddam Hussein, who led an Iraqi army into Kuwait. Kuwait is a major supplier of oil to the United States. If Saudi Arabia fell, Iraq would control one-fifth of the world's oil supply]
(Photo: Provided by Kit of all female veterans during a get together. Kit is dressed in red plaid sitting in the center.)
Timberlake: In the Air Force you were an Air Medevac. What is that?
Kit: It is like riding around the ambulance here on the ground, only we do it in the air and get to go to more places. You get to see the world, and you never know where you are going to end up.
Timberlake: Talk about Desert Storm in any way you want?
[For the reader's edification, it is not considered polite to ask any veteran specific questions about their time in the war. Crass questions about horrid things they may have seen or done during their time of service are always off-limits. Let them talk in their way.]
Kit: It was different. We built a medical compound on what was considered the frontline. I was more or less the replacement for two females who had been kidnaped and returned, and another who got sent home because she was pregnant before she deployed and did not know it. But, we did not get to see combat. We just got to treat the people who got injured. I guess it is like being in an emergency room, you know, doctors and nurses who see gunshots and everything else. I remember the sand was a real kicker. When the wind blew, you could wake up with about 10 lbs of sand on top of your sleeping bag. But I thank God. I was fortunate. I was not like your dad, who ran around with weapons during the war. I mean, I was weapons qualified as a small-arms expert, but the truth is I don't particularly like playing with guns. All I had was a little white ID card with a red cross on it, and that was my choice of weapon; healing people was my weapon. I missed home, of course, and they missed me. My loved ones could not find me. They sent me on the spot in place of someone, so I had no orders or anything other than having gone to Homestead Air Force Base.
Timberlake: How was life different when you were out of the service?
Kit: [Through laughter] We are used to taking orders and doing the job, working the job until the job's done. It was not the same when I came home. We did not sit and play with cell phones while working. The mission always came first in the military. It came before family and everything else.
Timberlake: Would you say vets are uniquely qualified or work more efficiently?
Kit: Yes, the mission comes first. Always. When out of the military, co-workers knew I was different. I started working at FedEx, my demeanor, the way I walked and talked was different. Without saying anything about being in the military, everyone seemed to know.
Timberlake: Vets often talk about not having support when they come home. Do you find the support to be lacking?
Kit: You are right. If you do not know where to go to obtain that support, you can get lost. That is why my organization and others like it are so important.
Timberlake: The work you do with New Hope Village for Vets, why did you start that?
Kit: I have always helped people since I was 14. Even in the military, when I came across homeless people, I stuck my neck out to help. It comes naturally. When I retired from the military, I went back to school. While I was in school, I met a family that was homeless. I took the mother and two sons into my home. Then, I was brought a man who was in the Marines and living in a dumpster. People that knew me in the community knew I would take him in, so they brought him to me. That was in 2008.
Timberlake: What happened to the people you took in?
Kit: The gentleman is now clean, drug-free, working, and back home with his family. As for the lady and her two sons, the oldest graduated from Drew University and is a doctor, her youngest son is a civil engineer, and she is working at a childcare center last I heard.
[Kit has taken in dozens of homeless people over the years]
Timberlake: Why do you think it is essential to open your doors? Why not just give them a couple of bucks or food to eat?
Kit: Because sometimes they need a little more. They need patience, love, and understanding. They need to know they are not alone, and they do not have to walk this walk by themselves. Trust me, after spending years homeless myself, in and out of my car and hotel rooms, of that nature. I understand how it is. In 2007, I was in a car accident and could not work. I became homeless. My job in the community at the time led me not to tell anybody about my need. I became homeless when I was the post commander and became the state vice-commander of the American Legion. I could not tell anybody.
Timberlake: How did you find your way out of homelessness?
Kit: The reason and how I became homeless was because of that car accident. I could not work a regular job anymore. So my money went from making $45K a year to a little over $10K a year. Not much you can do when you are only bringing in $856 a month. I was waiting for my social security to kick in. Once the social security kicked in, I was able to open my mouth and ask for help. I got rental assistance from the military for a year, then my VA benefits kicked in, and I have not looked back since.
(Photo: Britnee Timberlake in her role as Assemblywoman honoring Kit for her service)
Timberlake: Tell me about the organization you founded out of your experiences?
Kit: It was started in 2008 as Hope Home. I had a hard time getting nonprofit status because I wanted to turn the home I was living in Montclair into a veteran home. We could not get Township approval to do it. So, I changed the name to New Hope Village for Vets and, in 2013, got nonprofit status. Under the nonprofit, everything I had been doing as far as hosting coat and toy drives, giving out food, helping people find apartments, helping them move, helping them get their benefits, was something I was doing all along. If I could kick in a few bucks for someone to stay in a hotel overnight, that is what I did, and that is what I still do with the nonprofit. But my end goal is to build housing. With my vision, veterans and their families will always have a place to live.
Timberlake: What has been the most significant challenge to achieving your end goal?
Kit: Finding the money and the land to build. Here in Essex, I have approached municipalities but have not had any luck. All I need is an empty building. Let me start. Trust me. I will be able to build. Currently, a woman in Buffalo, NY, gave me a plot of land, and we are already in the process of building 11 transitional apartments on it. I am hoping we can do something in Essex County too. Still, despite having architectural drawings, a sound plans for building, and providing services. The right public-private partnership has not come along. If I could get my hands on a run-down building, I will turn it around into a palace for vets here at home. Until then, my dream of housing for vets is on its way to flourish in Buffalo.
To donate to New Hope Village for Veterans or to receive help, please visit: www.NewHopeVillage4Veterans.com, and do not forget to thank a veteran today, and always.
If you would like to nominate someone to be featured in one of my “Heroes Walk Beside Us” articles, please submit their name, bio, and reason for nomination to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Britnee N. Timberlake is a stakeholder of TAPinto by way of the East Orange/Orange site. Her main function is to feature stories and interviews of people, organizations, companies, etc. within East Orange/Orange who make a difference in the community. To remove conflict of interest, Timberlake is not involved in articles written about political campaigns or deciding if any story is published highlighting her work as a NJ State Assemblywoman.
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