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State's first Blue Star Mothers of America chapter, of Willmar, has been supporting the military for 20 years

The Blue Star Mothers of America chapter in Willmar was formed in 2003 and, for two decades, has been supporting active duty military and their families.

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Members of Blue Star Mothers MN 1, the local Blue Star Mothers of America chapter based in Willmar, says the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of their May 18, 2023 meeting. The Blue Star Mothers group meets every month in Willmar to coordinate volunteer events, pack boxes that are sent to deployed troops with a Minnesota connection and provide support to each other.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR โ€” In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom , as both active duty and reserve military personnel were being deployed to a dangerous combat zone, a group of dedicated women formed the first official chapter of Blue Star Mothers of America in Minnesota. Blue Star Mothers MN 1 , based in Willmar, has been providing a way for mothers with service member children to come together from across western Minnesota.

"We have three main purposes. Our first purpose is to support each other and our children," said Sharon Skaro, one of two founding members of MN 1 still involved with the group. "Our second purpose is to honor gold star families ... and then our third is to promote patriotism. Those are our three main purposes and they have not changed."

The national Blue Star Mothers of America organization was formed in 1942 in Flint, Michigan. It was the early days of World War II, and the group was formed as way to bring together, and use, one of the strongest groups on the home front to assist with the war effort.

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The Blue Star banner. The star represents a son or daughter serving a military deployment.
West Central Tribune file photo

"It was to activate one of the most powerful groups in the United States and that was mothers," Skaro said. "They did really good things, it was pretty amazing."

The organization got its name from the flag banners, first created in World War I, that hung in the windows of families with children serving overseas. The blue stars on the banner showed how many children were serving, while a gold star signified one of those children, and the family, had made the ultimate sacrifice.

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The United States Congress officially recognized the national group as a veterans service organization on Jan. 6, 1960, issuing a congressional charter. Blue Star Mothers is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with nearly 200 chapters across the country, including six in Minnesota.

Over the last two decades, the size of the MN 1 chapter has fluctuated. Currently, it has 11 mother members and two associate members. But their size hasn't stopped them from their core missions.

Taking care of all the military sons and daughters

This small but dedicated group has continued supporting those serving overseas and promoting patriotism at home. Every month the group sends out care packages to those deployed โ€” filled with snacks, personal hygiene products and well wishes from home.

They've also sent out Christmas boxes to any military personnel who were serving away from home. The boxes included such items as blankets with Minnesota iconography like loons and trees, stocking hats and knitted slippers. And there is a still a need, as military members continue to be deployed.

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Members of the Blue Star Mothers MN 1 in Willmar, in 2015, pack boxes that are sent to deployed troops with a Minnesota connection. This is the oldest chapter in Minnesota, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune file photo

The group has attended several deployment ceremonies and welcome home celebrations over the years and held various activities and fundraisers supporting active duty and National Guard troops and veterans. Recently MN 1 held a meal and bingo event at Eagle's Healing Nest in Sauk Centre. The facility provides a place for veterans to receive help and healing.

"It was very good for me to go, it was a very opening experience," said member Jaime Gary, whose son has just recently enlisted. "I would want someone to take care of my son the way they are taking care of the veterans. I took away a lot from it."

Assisting and supporting veterans, some dealing with mental or physical health issues connected to their combat service, is becoming increasingly important to the Blue Star Mothers. While the wars may be over, the impacts will be felt for years to come.

"That is why we need this, we need moms to take care of those people," Gary said.

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The local Blue Star Mothers chapter gives special honor cords to high school graduates who have enlisted into the military.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The MN 1 chapter also celebrates and commemorates the next generation of soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors. They have provided red, white and blue honor cords to high school graduates who have enlisted into the military for some time, and hope to grow the program in the future. This year, Willmar Public Schools has already requested 12 cords for seniors who have enlisted. Cords will be given to seniors at New London-Spicer and MACCRAY as well.

"I think it is important to do," member Elaine Hulstrand said.

Blue Star Mothers additionally work with other organizations, events and families who similarly support the military in various ways. The group supports member Tracy Clark, who is a Gold Star mother, with her annual scholarship fundraiser in honor of her son, Ryane Clark, who was killed Oct. 4, 2010, while serving in Afghanistan .

The Ryane Clark Memorial Scholarship Foundation event will be held Sept. 9 at the American Legion post in New London. Then the second annual Fallen Heroes football game will be on Sept. 15, which is a fundraiser for the New London-Spicer Educational Foundation for scholarships, including one named in Ryane Clark's honor.

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The Blue Star Mothers tries to have a presence at many community events, such as a float in the Willmar Fests Grande Day Parade in this undated file photo.
Rand Middleton / West Central Tribune file photo

"We raised over $10,000 last year and it all went to the Educational Foundation fund at the school," Clark said. "And we gave our first scholarship away this year."

Partnering with other groups is something the Blue Star Mothers wants to grow in the future, as they see it as a way to increase outreach. They are always open to new projects and events.

"Partnering with others would be a wonderful thing," said member Kimberly Jakes.

To continue being able to do projects and programs that meet the Blue Star Mothers' three main purposes, the group will be selling brats at Cash Wise in Willmar from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 15. At the brat stand the group will also be giving out small, green and pink plastic military member toys with a prayer tied to them. It is a reminder to keep military members in people's thoughts and prayers.

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Keeping military members, active duty or otherwise, in the public's consciousness can be a bit difficult, especially when there isn't a massive deployment of a local unit. Blue Star Mothers tries to be visible by driving in summer parades, helping at public community events and just reaching out.

"We are really looking at making more connections with people," Jakes said.

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The Blue Star Mothers will be giving out these plastic servicemen and servicewomen during their brat feed fundraiser at Cash Wise Foods on July 15 in Willmar to remind the public to remember and pray for those serving in the military.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Mothers supporting mothers

Blue Star Mothers isn't just a group that sends out care packages and rides on floats in parades. It is also an important support group for the mothers themselves. It is a group where they can find someone to talk to, who understands what they are going through with their children far from home. Just knowing you can have someone to call at all hours of the day or night can be a great comfort.

"It is really nice to have someone who knows the language. It is a foreign language when your kid joins the military, you don't know what all that means," Skaro said. "Just keep listening, that is what they need."

At their monthly meetings at Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar, the group starts by introducing themselves and sharing about their military children. The current group members have children who have retired from the Army and those serving in the Marines, Navy, Air Force and Minnesota National Guard. The moms are also able to tell stories about their children's experiences โ€” and their own as a military mom.

"We'll help you hang on, we are right there with you," Jakes said.

As a new military mom, Gary appreciates having the support of other moms who have been where she is. While Gary's son isn't in a dangerous war zone, just having him gone and out of reach is hard. It will take getting used to for everyone not to have him home for holidays or on the weekends.

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"It is still a transition. It is very new to us," Gary said.

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Blue Star Mothers members, from left, Elaine Hulstrand, Tracy Clark and Jaime Gary put together the small prayer soldiers for an upcoming fundraiser. The group provides a needed support group from military mothers.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

For Clark, whose son died nearly 13 years ago, Blue Star Mothers still offers her much needed comfort and understanding.

"This is my support system, so I keep coming," Clark said.

The local Blue Star Mothers chapter is always looking for new members. Only mothers who have children serving or have served can be voting members, but other family members can join as associate members.

They also don't have to live near Willmar. One of the local group's associate members is from South Dakota. Anyone interested or looking for more information can contact chapter president Mary Reitsma at president.mn1@bluestarmothers.us .

"We are much more inclusive than a group of moms," Reitsma said.

Looking forward to its next years, the Blue Star Mothers plan to continue their support and advocacy for military personnel, veterans, their families and, of course, their mothers. They want to be a resource for people to get information and find help if they need it.

"We are looking to be there for each other," Jakes said. "We are there for our kids."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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