Holiday, year-round help for military families

Union Tribune | San Diego | December 3, 2012

By Karen Kucher

Originally published December 3, 2012 at 5:14 p.m., updated December 3, 2012 at 5:59 p.m.

When Elaine Boland reflects on the past 25 years, she thinks of the many ways the volunteer group she cofounded has helped military families in the county. Members of Avant Garde have prepared 7,000 pounds of care packages, hosted holiday events and raised nearly $200,000 to support more than 40 programs run by the San Diego Armed Services YMCA.

Boland’s deep interest in helping military families blossomed years ago, growing from a college romance.

She was attending pharmacy school in Buffalo, N.Y., during the 1950s when a classmate named Bruce offered her assistance in the chemistry lab. He was so interested in talking to her that he burned his hand while handling some hot glass tubing.

In 1955, the couple married after Bruce Boland left college to join the Navy and graduated from flight school in Pensacola, Fla. He went on to become a rear admiral, spending 34 years in the Navy before retiring as “San Diego’s Navy mayor” in 1987.

Elaine Boland never became a pharmacist — she was too busy with two dozen moves over the years because of her husband’s assignments, with raising four children and with aiding thousands of other military households through her volunteer work.

After the Bolands settled permanently in San Diego, she became involved with the San Diego Armed Services YMCA and served as its first female chair in 1996. She’s a lifetime board member of the organization, which has a mission of making military life easier.

Boland and a friend, Les Frazee, established Avant Garde, which recruits civilian and military wives to assist with the Y’s many programs. Those include the Super Parent Holiday Shopping Day, which gives young military parents the chance to pick out toys for their children.

The group also helps host “Christmas You Missed,” a party held annually in June for military families that weren’t together during the holiday season because of deployments.

“Wherever there is a need, Avant Garde is there,” Boland said.

The following is Boland’s recent conversation with U-T San Diego about her charitable efforts.

Q: Your husband was in the Navy for more than three decades. Do you see the same things with today’s young enlisted wives and officers wives that you saw years ago?

A: There are still too many deployments. Bruce had made 13, most of them nine months long. And there wasn’t an Armed Services Y to give support.

I really have a heart for the military and military families because I lived it and know what the particular situation is, and I think that’s what I love about being involved with the Armed Services Y and Avant Garde. As a skipper’s wife, I kind of “mother henned” the group (of wives) and tried to help and make events that got them through it.

Q: Why did you attend pharmacy school?

A: My dad had been a pharmacist and although he didn’t want me to take (up the profession) because of him, my mom kind of encouraged it because she thought it was something I could do relief work with. However, relief work is weekends and holidays and that’s when you need to be with your family.

I have not had regrets. Spending a career as a professional volunteer has been rewarding.

Q: Who inspires you?

A: The women of Avant Garde, who are dedicated and caring and service-minded — service as in giving service, as well as having a focus on the service personnel.

Q: Was giving back important in your family when you were growing up?

A: I come by it naturally. First of all, I went to Holy Angels Academy and service was part of what we learned, along with caring and love of others. And my dad had started a Boy Scouts troop in Buffalo in the Polish community, the first in that community. And then my mom would make cookies for the orphanage and she did (the same for) the troop trains that went through Buffalo during the Second World War. So she was doing the gift (packages) back then.

Q: The holiday season can be a tough time for military families, especially if someone is deployed. What can people do this time of year to make things better for those households?

A: I would say support an organization that has figured out military families’ special needs. Offer to volunteer for any of the programs, and there are opportunities at the military hospitals as well. One of the things we have done is invite military for Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas dinners.

Q: How can people help to make San Diego a better place?

A: Help the military and military families and some of the wounded who are having difficulties and then the homeless situation. Whatever they can do to help in any of those areas and make contributions if they are able.

Q: What would people be surprised to learn about you?

A: While I was finishing up pharmacy school, I had a job as an assistant fashion coordinator for one of the prominent department stores (Hengerer’s) in Buffalo. And when we were stationed in Monterey, I did a fashion shoot for one of the stores there. That’s probably the only photograph I have of the whole thing.

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