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Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program—recognizing volunteer caregivers of wounded soldiers—represents the only one of its kind in the nation

More than 150 people gathered at the UMGC Inn and Conference Center on Thursday, April 25, 2013, for a special ceremony honoring the first three beneficiaries of the new Pillars of Strength Scholarship Fund, a first-of-its kind scholarship program exclusively focused on the volunteer caregivers of injured soldiers. UMGC has joined the Yellow Ribbon Fund and The Blewitt Foundation in establishing the fund.

The first class of Pillars of Strength scholars included Emily Ball (Winston-Salem, N.C.), Danielle Kelly (Cedar Falls, Ia.) and Beverly Poyer (Charlotte Hall, Md.). All three will begin classes at UMGC in fall 2013.

“For more than 65 years, UMGC has served the education needs of military students, both overseas and stateside,” said UMGC President Javier Miyares. “It is not often, though, that we have an opportunity to reach out and touch lives so directly—so profoundly—as we do through the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Fund.”

At the ceremony, Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the keynote address, calling all volunteer caregivers “true American heroes” and praising the three honorees for their quiet strength and willingness to set aside their own lives to support their loved ones.

“Each of these recipients—Emily, Danielle, Beverly—has given their very best.  .  .  ,” he said. “.  .  . dropping everything, standing by [their loved ones] during every step of the difficult journey.  .  .  .Tonight’s scholarships are a part of their own journey back, providing each of these great American women the opportunity to pursue higher education to support their future.”

Winnefeld also commended UMGC, the Yellow Ribbon Fund and The Blewitt Foundation for their outstanding service to America’s military and for working together to make these scholarships available.

Edward J. Quinn Jr., chairman of the Yellow Ribbon Fund, presented each recipient with a framed certificate representing their scholarship award. All three women also received a new laptop to assist with their studies, courtesy of former UMGC Board of Visitors member Barbara Dryer and her husband, John.

Kelly, speaking on behalf of all three recipients, expressed her gratitude for the opportunity offered to caregivers “to go back to school, bettering themselves and eventually bettering their families.” She is enrolled in UMGC’s MBA program and hopes to start a nonprofit organization.

Kelly was introduced by her partner of eight years, Taylor Morris—a quadruple amputee—who received a standing ovation as he walked to the podium. Morris was severely injured in May 2012 when he stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan, losing his left arm above the elbow, his right hand, and both legs above the knee.

“Upon getting that phone call—that devastating phone call—of what had happened and the extent of my injuries, my girlfriend [Danielle] dropped everything  .  .  . and moved out to Bethesda to be by my side. And she’s been there ever since,” he said.

Striving to Achieve

Kelly was on her way to work when she received word that Morris had been injured. She immediately returned home and prepared for the trip to Walter Reed.

“We were together from the first time he was able to get out of bed  .  .  . to the first time he was able to stand, walk, run, swim, kayak, snowboard, and bike. He’s come a long way,” she said.

The couple is still striving to achieve the goals they set before the accident, Kelly said, even as they set new ones.

“I’m eager to get back to school and earn my MBA,” she said. “I’m excited to get started.”

Strength and Sacrifice

In October 2011, Emily Ball took leave from her job and left her family in Winston-Salem, N.C., to travel to Walter Reed to be with her boyfriend, Jessie Fletcher, who had lost both legs above the knee and several fingers while on active duty in Afghanistan.

Ball had been planning to start her MBA in fall 2012, but delayed her plans to help Fletcher through his recovery. Now that he is more mobile and independent—he was released from Walter Reed in December 2012—Ball is ready to return to her academic and career goals. She has enrolled in UMGC’s dual-degree program, pursuing an MBA and MS in management, and hopes to advance to an executive-level position.

“I was very excited to learn that I would be getting a full scholarship to UMGC,” said Ball, who is now engaged to marry Fletcher. “We’re planning to stay in Winston, so being able to complete my program online is very important.”

Fletcher, who was recently accepted to Wake Forest, said he is especially grateful to see Ball honored for her strength and sacrifice.

“There’s truly no stronger influence in my life during my recovery,” he said. “Emily was my north-seeking arrow. There’s no better way to show thanks and appreciation for her than [through] what the Pillars of Strength has done for her today.”

A New Role

Beverly and Max Poyer had been married for only two weeks when he was deployed to Afghanistan. Upon returning home, Max was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We didn’t really get to do the husband and wife honeymoon phase, but just fell into caregiving and learning about brain injuries and what to expect,” said Poyer.

While adjusting to her new role, Beverly decided to return to school. She will complete her associate’s degree at Colorado Technical University this May, but admits she was concerned about how she would continue her studies.

“Receiving this scholarship to UMGC is a huge blessing right now. I knew what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it,” she said. “This scholarship came exactly when I needed it.”

Poyer will begin earning her bachelor’s in psychology this fall. Ultimately, she plans to pursue a master’s in military family social work and hopes to help improve the lives of families like her own.

Raising Awareness

Although the Pillars of Strength Scholarship program is still new, Rich Blewitt, founder and CEO of The Blewitt Foundation, said the program’s sponsors expect it to grow quickly. They are counting on everyone who attended the evening’s ceremony to spread the word and help raise awareness about the importance of supporting volunteer caregivers.

“I think you saw very close up the people who can benefit by awarding scholarships—people who want to get back to the mainstream of life,” he said. “It’s amazing to watch what can happen when we all come together.”