Meet Kimberly Olson, retired United States Colonel and now CEO/President of Grace after Fire; a Fort Worth-based organization designed to support women Veterans. With 25 years of military service as a USAF pilot, Olson was among the first generation of female military pilots, with deployments to combat zones of Bosnia, Iraq and the Pentagon (surviving 9/11).
Olson's distinguished military career allowed her to change perceptions about women serving in the armed forces. Today, her work with Grace continues to drive home ideals that women Veterans are valuable and can succeed with a unique support network. Under Olson's leadership Grace helped 2,000 women overcome PTSD, moral inury and trauma; helping with a transition back into family, workplace and community. She recently convinced Texas legislators to pass a resolution naming March as Texas Women Veterans Month until the year 2020.
We wanted to know a litte more about Olson and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions about herself, Grace Under Fire and the female Veterans it serves.
Dawn Tongish: Can you tell us about Grace After Fire?
Colonel Kimberly Olson: Our mission is to help women Veterans help themselves by providing the means for women Veterans to gain self-knowledge and self-renewal. We do this work through leveraging resources and educational support for women veterans of the United States military who are returning from active duty so that they can re-engage as women, mothers, wives and daughters in civilian life. The collective efforts of the Grace team are truly not about the number of women veterans served. The true impact that Grace is having on veterans transpires on two fronts. The first front occurs with the actual work the team does with each veteran we serve and help. The second front involves the greater influence on the legacy veteran systems and local communities where veterans work, live and seek help.
DT: What are your duties at Grace After Fire?
KO: Much like the mission statement at Grace After Fire, the CEO/President has a two-fold mission: leading a team of phenomenal women, all except one, has served in the military; and the second is to advocate on behalf of women veterans.
DT: How did you become involved with Grace After Fire, and why are you so passionate about the work being done there?
KO: I was asked. My passion stems from being a part of the generation of women who took the door off the hinges for women in all kinds of careers to include the military. But we missed an important element in ensuring there was a safety net for women, especially those who serve their country in uniform. Simple things like appropriate gear to protect them (Army did not field test body armor for women until 2012); gender-based research on war related PTSD; ensuring women could get access to care in the legacy system set up for veterans; and finally, finding a safe place for women to go to heal (if needed) after their military service.
DT: Why do you work in the non-profit sector?
KO: Like most military veterans, we still have a need to serve our communities. I think leading a nonprofit allows you to be the voice for those struggling just to make a whisper. It allows for bigger impact in the arena of women veterans.
DT: It can be difficult for any non profit to pay the bills. How do you stay afloat?
KO: We are very frugal with donor dollars. Like any nonprofit, it takes funds to help women veterans, but we let our work speak for itself. Our great partners include foundations, corporations and private donors. More money means more women get help. It is that simple. We work really hard to keep our admin cost close to 10%. This means for every dollar given to grace, 90 cents is spent helping veterans. Our belief is if you help a female get well, she will get her family well and in the veterans’ world, get her mate or partner well. (60% of women vets are married to other vets or military, and 40% have school-age kids)
DT: How can the people of North Texas and beyond help meet your needs for 2014? What are your biggest needs?
KO: Hire women veterans, recognize them in the communities, get online and donate something to a local veteran organization, support local veteran events, and it is good to say thanks, but veterans live in your neighborhood, so reach out and do something!
DT: What is the most memorable moment in your experiences at Grace After Fire?
KO: Great question. I think it is more the sense that we are making a difference in women's lives everyday. The realizations that just like your responsibility as a commander to take care of the troops, same responsibility extends into the veteran space. For me, those troops are women veterans.
DT: What is the first thing you do when you walk into work each day?
KO: Ask myself, “What are you doing to help women veterans today.”