Nebraska Senior America

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Ms. Nebraska, Sandy Gessler CONGRATULATIONS to SANDY GESSLER, MS. NEBRASKA Senior America 2018!

Choice, change, and challenge are words that have guided my life. During my senior year in high school, I made the choice to enlist in the US Army, and upon graduation in 1975, I left for basic training. I truly felt like a pioneer woman due to the fact few women joined the military from North Dakota. I later served four years in the North Dakota National Guard.

Being a single parent and the challenges that come with custody issues of a divorce, I saw a need in my community for advocating needs of children who were involved in contested child custody and/or domestic violence situations. Completing training as a Court Appointed Child Advocate (CASA), I volunteered as a child advocate for our district court. A few years later, I designed and directed the “Child Advocacy Center,” the first non-profit organization in the tri-state area. The center provided the community with a safe environment for child exchanges between parents.

With my children raised, I was missing my military extended family and re-enlisted in the Army Reserve in Omaha, Nebraska in 1998. Two years later, I became my 3-month-old grandson’s legal guardian, so it seemed like I was doing a repeat of my life and choices. Volunteering to a call to deploy, I received orders to leave within five days for Operation Enduring Freedom (Iraq War). At the end of my tour, I returned home to find that my job as a property manager, which included my home, was no longer available. I was replaced and there were no other positions open. In less than 24 hours, I was unemployed and homeless after serving my country. I had my last military paycheck and my vehicle, a van. At least it was a beginning! I asked for help, but nothing was in place to help veterans at that time. So, I slept in my van while parked on the streets, showered in the park and worked two part-time jobs to put enough money together to rent a place and bring my child home. At 47 years old, I credit my military training for making me a survivor, instead of a victim of the streets.

I  have spent every day since, volunteering/advocating on behalf of homeless Veterans. Assisting communities and service organizations, (American Legion, VFW and the Disabled American Veterans) helping homeless veterans with food, and shelter. I am their “voice;” I know their story because it is like mine.

Using my military benefits, I graduated from college in 2009, as the “oldest” of the class which I saw as an opportunity to show younger people that age is not a factor in life goals. Another major change in my life was that my grandson and foster child graduated from high school, bringing an end to my parenting career of 41 years to over twenty children. The only challenge I have is learning how to walk in high heels.

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