By Bryan Wroten
What started as a website to help connect the young widows of soldiers, sailors and airmen across the country, turned into an opportunity for two local women to give back to a community in need.
Casie Behrend and Stacey Hrvatin recently spent a weekend in Austin, Texas, volunteering as part of the American Widow Project’s Gives Back Getaway.
“This was geared more toward giving back, and that’s also a way to step out of your comfort zone and remember we’re not the only ones to suffer something,” Hrvatin said.
Behrend lost her husband, Craig, a combat engineer in the U.S. Army, after a three-year struggle with testicular cancer Nov. 9, 2009. She and Craig started the Craig’s Army of Hope Fund, named after their Relay For Life Team, to raise money to assist local children in need suffering from cancer and other illnesses.
Hrvatin’s fiancé was U.S. Marine Capt. Michael J. Medders Jr., who was killed Sept. 24, 2008, by a suicide bomber in Jisr Naft, Iraq. They planned to marry July 2009.
The two connected after both attended a support group at St. John Medical Center for young widows, but they realized they were the youngest ones in attendance. Hrvatin said she heard about Behrend’s husband passing away, but didn’t want to call too soon. During the Christmas season last year, Hrvatin said she e-mailed Behrend through the young widow’s contact list. They met for dinner and have since formed a bond.
“(Casie Behrend’s) been a great friendship for me,” Hrvatin said, adding though it has been through “crappy circumstances” they connected. “It’s so nice to have someone local.”
Behrend said she can call Hrvatin, who “understands exactly what I’m going through.”
They help each other on bad days, she said, and they can always find humor in their situation.
“I’m so thankful through friends and family I ended up connecting with Stacey,” she said. “That’s been a godsend.”
Hrvatin introduced Behrend to the American Widow Project, a nonprofit organization. According to the project’s website, it is “dedicated to the new generation of those who have lost the heroes of yesterday, today and tomorrow, with an emphasis on healing through sharing stories, tears and laughter.”
Though Hrvatin had gone on the getaways before, once for skydiving and another for swimming with dolphins, this was Behrend’s first time. She wasn’t nervous, though - she couldn’t wait.
“I was excited to meet people in my shoes,” she said.
The two traveled separately the weekend of Dec. 10 to Austin. During the introductions that night, they each had to offer a piece of advice to each other. Behrend said, “Stay true to the person your husband fell in love with.”
“My advice was to be gentle with yourself,” Hrvatin said. “I think it’s hard in so many ways. When you’re past the first year or two years, you get caught up in what you should be doing, how you should feel. Putting more on yourself just makes it harder. I found on those days I need to veg around and wear pajamas and drink hot chocolate all day, just do that.”
The following Saturday, they and a group of 11 women worked with an organization that provides housing for the homeless and low-income families run by a Vietnam veteran. They rebuilt a house during the day and had dinner at an Italian restaurant.
The next day, they painted over graffiti on a bridge. Hrvatin said the bridge was about a half-mile long, but they had a boombox and rollers, so they kept moving along.
“We took a dance break to do a line dance,” she said.
That night, they had a Thanksgiving dinner. The point was though the holidays are hard, they can try to find something they are thankful for, Behrend said.
“I’m thankful for my husband, who was a pillar of strength,” she said. “As bad as cancer sucked for me, it gave us three years of holding nothing back. Regardless of how bad the cancer was, it brought us together.”
Both have been bitten by the volunteerism bug. Hrvatin said she had worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in Elyria and is looking for an opportunity to do something new. Behrend, who is going to school at Cleveland State University for a bachelor’s degree in psychology and wants a master’s degree for school counseling, said she may look into volunteering at the Hospice of the Western Reserve or a rape crisis center.
“It’s giving back to someone else instead of focusing on myself,” she said.